Youth Disconnection: Race & Readiness in America's Cities

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The Forum for Youth Investment
Sarah Taylor
June 26, 2015
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New study: despite gains, more than 5 million young people remain disconnected—and there are huge gaps by place and race.

Ferguson, Baltimore and Charleston. These are no longer just city names, they are also cultural touch points in our national dialogue (and, we hope, action) on race, justice and equity. They share another element in common, one that is also racially charged: high disconnection rates among some of their young people.

A new report by the nonpartisan initiative Measure of America, Zeroing in on Place and Race: Youth Disconnection in America’s Cities(PDF), finds that nearly one in seven young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 fall into the category of “disconnected youth”—that is, young people who are not connected to the workforce, school or other public systems and supports.  (This population is also sometimes called “opportunity youth” because they both deserve greater opportunity and represent untapped potential for employers seeking to fill millions of open jobs in this country).

Although the number of disconnected young people has dropped from its peak of 5.8 million in 2010 to 5.5 million in 2013, huge gaps by place and race remain.

Specifically, the report finds that certain metro areas, like Chicago, can be among the best for one racial group but the worst for another.  De facto residential segregation by race “produces concentrations of poverty and isolation as well as islands of affluence and connection.” This segregation disproportionately harms black teenagers and young adults, who have the highest national youth disconnection rate at 21.6 percent, compared to 20.3 percent for Native Americans, 16.3 percent for Latinos, 11.3 percent for whites and 7.9 percent for Asian Americans.

In other words, where a young person grows up has a big impact on his or her resources and possibilities for success. There is a growing body of evidence to support this (see this blog).

Perseverance, optimism, willingness to work … are not enough to enable disconnected young people to alter the trajectories of their lives.

When Zip Codes Seem to Determine Futures

The concentration of disconnected young people in segregated areas shows that this is not simply a “spontaneously occurring phenomenon.” Those who are disconnected are not innately less hardworking, intelligent or optimistic.

The Measure of America report emphasizes that personal characteristics such as perseverance, ability to delay gratification, optimism for a better future and willingness to work toward it—many of the same ones we define in the Readiness Abilities, Skillsets and Mindsets—alone are not enough to enable disconnected young people to alter the trajectories of their lives. These young people usually come from entire “communities that are themselves disconnected from the mainstream by segregation and concentrated disadvantage,” and it is likely that they will face the same struggles as their parents unless systems and structures within these communities are improved.

They face significant “readiness traps”— policies and practices in communities and youth-serving systems that, intentionally or otherwise, limit young people’s opportunities and often put them on a pathway toward disconnection. One example: juvenile detention practices that assume time is an adequate proxy for progress—that locking a young person up for six months will resolve his or her issues and enable “rehabilitation.” Another “trap” is the assumption that earning a high school diploma equates to competence and readiness for college or a job.

To prevent disconnection from occurring in the first place, we must reduce these traps. We must also make sure that these youth have access to what the Forum for Youth Investment has identified as the universal readiness practices. The readiness practices must be present from the very beginning of life so that young people grow up in an environment where their abilities are nurtured and where they receive the support and networks they need to succeed.  

That means improving access to high-quality K-12 schooling and mentoring programs led by people who coach and empower. Building new ways to reconnect youth to education and training where traditional school has failed. Reforming juvenile justice. Creating opportunities in all systems and settings for young people to understand, practice and develop not just skills but mindsets and behaviors essential for maintaining their own health, relationships and jobs.

Put another way: we must stop treating the symptoms of youth disconnection and instead begin to address its root causes.  

This matters to all of us because the cost of letting youth fall into the readiness traps is tremendous. As the report notes: "Even leaving aside the human costs of wasted potential, a conservative estimate of a narrow range of direct financial costs associated with the country’s 5.5 million disconnected youth—including incarceration, Medicaid, public assistance, and Supplemental Security Income payments—tallies $26.8 billion for 2013 alone."

If these youth disconnection rates remain, future generations will face a labor force with too few skilled workers to compete in the global economy, high public assistance and medical costs and likely higher crime and incarceration rates.

It’s deeply unfair to ask disconnected young people to tackle their challenges alone when they exist within systems that too often work against them. It’s up to all of us to act. The Readiness Project is one initiative committed to identifying solutions and ways to take action. What are you working on? Let us know! Email

In this Dispatch:

Sarah Taylor

Sarah Taylor is a rising junior at Washington University in St. Louis, serving as a summer intern with The Forum for Youth Investment and SparkAction on The Readiness Project.

Caitlin Johnson contributed to this post.  


This article is part of the Readiness Dispatches blog series, posted under The Readiness Project, a joint effort of The Forum for Youth Investment and SparkAction. Find more blogs and expert views in The Readiness Project Insights section. 



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