Disconnected Youth: A Policy Priority after the Great Recession

Harry Holzer
September 18, 2012

Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity recently asked several experts to address the challenge of “disconnected youth” or "opportunity youth" and what we can do about it. Read the whole blog series here.

Also check out SparkAction's Reconnections blog series on disconnected youth including commentary from experts and youth.

Even in the best of times, low-income young people disconnected from both school and work pose a serious social and economic challenge to the U.S. As they lose out on both critical educational advancement and early work experience, their prospects of future success often grow very dim, and their chances of living in future poverty – and, for men, being incarcerated – become disturbingly high.

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, with the job market recovering very slowly, the situation has now grown much worse. Less-skilled young people suffer more from lingering joblessness than any other group, and millions will be scarred by their current experiences of high unemployment or low earnings for years to come. The fiscal austerity that we will face going forward will make it even more difficult to design policy responses to this problem.

Although this situation may seem daunting, there are ways to improve the chances of disconnected youth. Research shows that combining high-quality career and technical education or training with paid work experience can improve the prospects of at-risk youth. Career academies, apprenticeships, and training for out-of-school youth in growing sectors (as provided by programs like Year Up) have all shown great success for this population.

For those still in school but at risk of failing, successful dropout prevention must also include serious case management and a range of support services to individuals, along with broader structural changes in the schools that generate so many dropouts.

For those who have already dropped out, or who are struggling through remedial efforts at community colleges, new approaches that combine remedial instruction with workforce preparation look very promising as well. Examples include Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (I-BEST) in Washington State or the GED Bridge program at LaGuardia Community College in New York.  

Despite these advances, our knowledge of what works remains limited, and one size does not fit all when it comes to disconnected youth. For those with the most serious deficiencies in basic skills, work experience, or emotional health, we have much less evidence about what is most effective. In these cases, combining program experimentation with serious evaluation offers our best hope of identifying successful strategies.

At the same time, we must not allow fiscal austerity to further diminish the already very small public resources devoted to the problems of at-risk or disconnected youth. Public efforts to subsidize paid work experience tied to skill development for these youth should now be expanded, not shrunk. Indeed, the future costs of failing to make more of these investments right now – in the form of lower productivity, poorer health, and maybe even higher crime – could prove quite daunting.

Let’s tackle the nation’s fiscal crisis in the right way – with higher tax revenues plus entitlement reforms – and without scapegoating programs that serve our nation’s most disadvantaged and at-risk young people.   

Harry J. Holzer is a professor of public policy at Georgetown University.    


This content was originally published by Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity and is reprinted here with permission.