Disconnected Youth: Fiction vs. Reality for Youth Not in School and Not Working

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is one of my all-time favorite movies. If you haven’t seen it, Ferris, played by a young Matthew Broderick, fakes illness for a day off from school. Ferris and his friends use the day off to visit a museum, go to a baseball game, eat at a fancy restaurant, and take some time to contemplate their futures.

But Ferris’ day of fun away from school was only one day. This movie lies in stark contrast to the grim reality of what Measure of America (MOA) has termed America’s disconnected youth. These are young people, aged 16-24, who are out of work and out of school. According to MOA’s latest report, “Promising Gains, Persistent Gaps: Youth Disconnection in America,” there are approximately 4.9 million disconnected youth across the nation. In the New York City (NYC) metro area, MOA estimates that 12.2% of the youth population, or roughly 287,100 kids, are detached from employment or school.

While rates of disconnected youth have improved since 2010 (nationally the rate dropped from 14.7% in 2010 to 12.3% in 2015), more needs to be done. Disconnection is strongly correlated with a number of adverse outcomes. Minority youth experience some of the highest rates of disconnection.

The graph above from MOA’s report shows that Native American youth experience the highest rates of disconnection, with black and Latino youth also experiencing rates exceeding the overall U.S. rates. Asian youth have the lowest rates.

In cities like Chicago, the problem of disconnected youth is acute. According to research from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute, black youth (16- to 19-year-olds) and (20- to 24-year-olds) in Chicago have a greater likelihood of being both out of work and out of school than in other large U.S. cities and in the country at large. They also experience higher rates of disconnection than other racial/ethnic groups. For instance, in Chicago 12.5% of black 16- to 19-year-olds are not working and not in school, compared to 5.6% of white 16- to 19-year-olds.

Percentage of 16- to 19-Year-Olds Who Were Out of School and Out of Work in the United States, Illinois, Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles by Race/Ethnicity, 2014

The disconnection rate among black youth aged 20 to 24 are similarly troubling and we see higher rates of disconnection among black youth as compared to white youth. In Chicago, 39.5% of black 20- to 24-year-olds are both out of school and out of work, compared to 6.3% of white 20-24 year olds.

Percentage of 20- to 24-Year-Olds Who Were Out of School and Out of Work in the United States, Illinois, Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles by Race/Ethnicity, 2014

Alternative Schools Network, which commissioned the Great Cities’ report, sees employment as the pathway to re-engagement with society, and targeted efforts to reach those who are disconnected are being undertaken in Chicago. For example the University of Chicago Crime Lab found that the One Summer Chicago Plus jobs program, which provided eight-week-long part-time summer jobs to Chicago youth, resulted in a 43% reduction in violent crime arrests for those participating in the program compared to similar youth not participating.

Though Chicago/Illinois is the worst performer in the Great Cities’ report, NYC and Los Angeles also have high rates of youth disengagement as evidenced by the charts above. In NYC, efforts are underway to improve the situation for youth who are out of work and out of school. Recently Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance awarded $58 million to youth and family programming to prevent crime in NYC, as part of its Criminal Justice Investment Initiative. Additionally, the Department of Youth and Community Development offers a Summer Youth Employment Program for those aged 14- to 24-years-old as well as a year-round Cornerstone Program for youth and adults at New York City Housing Authority Community Centers throughout the five boroughs. The Harvard Kennedy School recently highlighted the work of NYC’s Project Rise, which provides high school equivalency instruction, case management, job-readiness training, and paid internship opportunities to NYC youth who have dropped out of high school.

Supporting disconnected youth, by providing them with links to school and employment, is complex and solutions do not come in one-size-fits-all models. But making sure these youth have pathways into meaningful engagement with society is crucial to improving outcomes and helping young people succeed.