Moving Toward Improved Outcomes for Disconnected Youth
Christina Church, Policy Analyst
Across the country, states are confronting the same problem: an alarming number of youth ages 16 to 24 who are neither working nor in school. In our cities, suburbs, and rural areas, these “disconnected youth” are struggling to find an on-ramp to a self-supporting career. While adult employment rates are returning to their pre-recession levels, youth unemployment rates have remained stagnant or worsened.
Disconnection has far-reaching impact. On an individual level, education and employment are key indicators of well-being, promoting not only economic mobility but also dignity, life satisfaction, safety, and community participation. The impact of reconnecting youth to work or school is profound and results in better physical and mental well-being, stronger social bonds, and a lower likelihood of poverty.
On a community level, lower rates of disconnection correlate to less crime and result in not only decreased spending for social services but also new revenue from increased economic participation. It is for these reasons that many policymakers refer to disconnected youth as “opportunity youth,” because they contain tremendous opportunity for building a more robust community, workforce, and economy. When disconnected youth are prepared and supported, they often bring resilience, loyalty, and grit to the workplace.
Here in Maryland, more than 85,000 young people ages 16 to 24 are disconnected from both work and school – just slightly more than one in every 10 youth in the State. The problem is truly statewide, as the jurisdictions with the highest percentages of disconnected youth are on the Eastern Shore, in Baltimore City, and in western Maryland.
Table 1: All Maryland jurisdictions with higher youth disconnection than the U.S. average. Source: American Community Survey, updated October 2015.
The Governor’s Workforce Investment Board has identified a number of factors contributing to Maryland’s youth disconnection: a majority of new jobs created in Maryland requiring training beyond a high school diploma; a diminishing need for lower skilled workers; growing difficulty entering the workforce at all due to limited work experience opportunities; and a sharp generational transition in the labor force. Among those with no high school diploma, challenges are complex and many, including substance abuse, parenthood, extremely low skills, and history of incarceration.
Governor Hogan is prioritizing reconnecting these youth to work and school. To that end, the Children’s Cabinet produced a strategic plan outlining plans to address this population and specific subpopulations, including youth transitioning from foster care, youth involved with Juvenile Services, and youth with disabilities. A significant change to statewide activities for disconnected youth will be the implementation of the new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which increases the percentage of youth funding that must be spent on out of school youth from 30% to 75% and increases the eligibility age from 21 to 24. This change will permit a greater number of older disconnected youth to be served through job training.
Other State activities geared toward creating pathways to the adult workforce will include examining policies and structural barriers to work, piloting apprenticeship and entrepreneurship programs for youth, and directing Children’s Cabinet funds to jurisdictions with strong plans to reconnect local youth to self-sustaining pathways.
 Bridgeland, John and Tess Mason-Elder. A Bridge to Reconnection. Aspen Institute and Civic Enterprises. September 2012. See also The White House Council for Community Solutions Final Report on Community Solutions for Opportunity Youth. June 2012.