To ensure that all young people become productive adults, we need to actively seek out, identify and confront policies and behaviors that – intentionally or not – sideline youth of color from pathways to opportunity and, simultaneously, we need to invest in and expand the things that help them succeed.

This blog post is part of the series “Closing the Racial Gaps: Together We Can” which highlights efforts across the United States that show promise for closing racial opportunity gaps and creating a more equitable future.


“Our two-year study of 16-24 year olds has convinced us that, as young Americans navigate the passage from youth to adulthood, far too many flounder and ultimately fail in their efforts. Although rich in material resources, our society seems unable to ensure that all our youth will mature into young men and women able to face their futures with a sense of confidence and security.”

So argues The Forgotten Half, a seminal report by William T. Grant Foundation, published in 1988, a few years before Living Cities was founded.

Subsequent reports and calls for action reflect the increasingly difficult passage many young people continue to face. In 2003, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation published Connected by 25, documenting the poor outcomes for young people who do not complete high school, are involved with the juvenile justice system, spend time in foster care and/or are young, unmarried mothers.

In 2012, the White House Council on Community Solutions estimated that one in six young people ages 16 to 24 are disconnected and could ultimately cost taxpayers $1.6 trillion over their lifetimes in foregone revenues and increased costs for social supports. Also in 2012, The Annie E. Casey Foundation published Youth and Work: Restoring Teen and Young Adult Connections to Opportunity. The report noted that changes in the broader economy were making it more and more difficult for young people to get attached to the workforce.

Disconnected Youth

1 in 6 In the United States, one in six youth ages 16 to 24, are disconnected from opportunity.

These reports and calls for action have achieved some gains. Several recommendations from The Forgotten Half were included in the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act which reduced divisions between academic and vocational education and built stronger connections between high schools and community colleges. Responding to some of the issues raised in Connected by 25, the Fostering Connections Act in 2008 authorized expanding foster care to 21, to help provide more support to vulnerable youth during their transition to adulthood.
There have been many public and private initiatives launched to focus on helping more young people back onto the path to opportunity. For instance, Achieving the Dream, founded in 2004 by the Lumina Foundation and seven others now is working with 200 institutions of higher education, and the Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund launched by the Aspen Institute in 2012 to carry on the work of the White House Council on Community Solutions now is working in 21 communities. In 2003, the Youth Transition Funders Group published a guide for funders based on Connected by 25, updated in 2013, and has continued to facilitate learning and action by more than 100 funders focused on successful futures for youth and young adults.

Since the publication of The Forgotten Half and the founding of Living Cities, most measures of youth well-being have improved. Eighty-six percent of high school graduates now attend college within the eight years following high school. The teen birth rate has decreased by 60% and the rate of high school students not graduating on time also has decreased markedly, by 31%. Youth incarceration over the past decade has decreased 53% and placements in foster care also have decreased.

That’s the good news. The stark and alarming bad news is that the employment rate for young adults is at the lowest level since World War II. Only about half of young people ages 16 to 24 held jobs in 2011. More than 5 million young people ages 16 – 24 remain out of school and out of work. While some of them will find their way back on track, we know that many will continue to have only tenuous ties to the workforce, and many will struggle to form and provide for stable families. Approximately sixteen percent of them are already parents caring for children, increasing the odds that their challenges will continue over to the next generation.

Out of Work

5 million More than 5 million young people ages 16 – 24 remain out of school and out of work.

Disconnected youth are not a population that has been hidden from view. It is not an issue that has lacked attention from important public or private sector institutions. It is not a challenge for which we have been unable to identify policy changes, practice improvements or program innovations.

But still we as a society are writing off millions of young people and we are doing so to the detriment of their lives and our collective futures.

So what are we missing? In short, as in so much of American life, we have failed to face up to the impact of race and racism on their daily lives and on their futures. A conscious, deliberate, and thoughtful focus on racial equity has been largely lacking from our strategies and thinking.

More than half of disconnected youth are of color. For most of them, becoming disconnected from opportunity is not a sudden development. Their disconnection reflects the deeply entrenched and perniciously powerful effects of long standing policies, practices and behaviors that exclude people of color from opportunity and make it difficult for families to give their children the futures they deserve.

Moreover, youth of color are much more likely to become involved in systems that function as off ramps from opportunity, virtual pipelines to disconnection. Youth who spend time in foster care are significantly more likely to also spend some time neither employed nor in school as young adults, and one study estimated that as many as 45% of all disconnected youth have been involved in the justice system.

Youth in the Justice System

45% As many as 45% of all disconnected youth have been involved in the justice system.

To ensure that all young people become productive adults, we need to actively seek out, identify and confront policies and behaviors that – intentionally or not – sideline youth of color from pathways to opportunity and, simultaneously, we need to invest in and expand the things that help them succeed.

That means zeroing in on supports for young people involved in the juvenile justice or child welfare systems and young people of color. It means redoubling our efforts to reduce the pipeline by decreasing the number of youth who are incarcerated as well as reforming our approach to juvenile justice to place a stronger emphasis on helping young people acquire the skills, experiences and credentials that will prepare them for work. It means bringing together strong but isolated efforts to create pathways to opportunity with mentors and coaches who can help young people navigate those pathways.

Every analysis from the mid-80s onward has noted that young people of color do worse than their white counterparts. But as progress is being made for some youth, we have not yet built the will to do what it takes to ensure that all youth become productive adults. Absent specific actions targeted to achieve equitable outcomes, youth of color will get left further and further behind and their children will start even further behind. Our aspirations to be a nation of equity and opportunity will be impossible to achieve if we do not intentionally and aggressively act to ensure that all young people are on a path to a productive adulthood.

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