For the country’s “disconnected youth” — teens and young adults ages 16 to 24 who are neither attending school nor working — it’s harder to build the skills and relationships that prepare them for a rewarding adulthood.
The rate of youth disconnection spiked in 2010 during the Great Recession at 14.7% (or 1 in 7 young people), and has steadily declined since, dropping to 11.2% (or 1 in 9 young people) by 2018.
But a new report from Measure of America, a project of the nonprofit Social Science Research Council, warns that the COVID-19 pandemic might completely erase the past decade’s progress on this metric and more, bringing the youth disconnection rate to 1 in 5, or even 1 in 4, young people.
“Being disconnected as a young person leads to lower wages, higher lifetime unemployment and more contact with the criminal justice system,” Kristen Lewis, the director of Measure of America, told “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio. “And all of us pay a high price for youth disconnection because it leads to lower tax revenues, reduced competitiveness as a nation, higher health and criminal justice costs, and much more. We all lose when people can’t fulfill their potential.”
Mapping opportunity in America
To understand more about the communities in which disconnected young people live, statisticians calculated youth disconnection for each of the country’s roughly 2,400 Census Bureau-defined public use microdata areas, or PUMAs. They then sorted each PUMA into one of eight “community types,” according to population density and rate of youth disconnection.
Lewis said these community types allow us to map opportunity across the country — from “opportunity-rich” urban and suburban communities to the “opportunity deserts” where the nation’s most vulnerable youth reside.
You can look up your community on the map below.
“My concern, as the country moves to a recovery from the pandemic, is that young people from the most disadvantaged communities with the fewest resources will find themselves, once again, at the back of the line,” Lewis said.
Lewis spoke with Brancaccio about why the pandemic and the economic aftermath could be so crippling for vulnerable young Americans. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kristen Lewis: We believe that this indicator tells us something incredibly important. It tells us who in our society has the chance to lay the groundwork for a freely chosen, flourishing adulthood — and who doesn’t.
The period of emerging adulthood is when we develop many of the skills we need to live a flourishing life. It’s when, through academics and clubs and sports and first jobs, young adults develop social skills and networks and gain the credentials and formal and informal knowledge necessary to build a career and to build a good life. And disconnected young people miss out on these critical school and work experiences.
And the result of that is that being disconnected as a young person leads to lower wages, higher lifetime unemployment and more contact with the criminal justice system. And all of us pay a high price for youth disconnection because it leads to lower tax revenues, reduced competitiveness as a nation, higher health and criminal justice costs and much more. We all lose when people can’t fulfill their potential.
David Brancaccio: So the goal is to connect disconnected people. The suggestion here is that this pandemic could be winding the clock backwards on those efforts.
Lewis: Yeah, exactly. So we found that the rate of youth disconnection had gone from a recession-fueled high of 14.7% in 2010, to just 11.2% in 2018. However, unfortunately, based on past trends, we’re projecting that the COVID-19 crisis will completely erase these eight years of progress, and the youth disconnection rate will likely spike even higher than it did during the Great Recession. It could even reach as high as 1 in 5, or even 1 in 4, young people.
Brancaccio: The experts we keep talking to don’t really know what the shape of the recovery will be. What are the assumptions built into that kind of forecast on your part?
Lewis: So we found that the youth disconnection rate closely follows the unemployment rate. And we’ve had 40 million lost jobs, and the Federal Reserve and others are projecting long-term really high unemployment, higher than even the Great Depression.
In addition, students have been physically separated from school and really are struggling to keep up. So, if you’re already struggling in high school, struggling to master the material, struggling to feel a part of the school community — and then school is canceled and you’re just home and you’re in your house with your computer, imagine how easy it would be just to, sort of, drift away from school. So we’re very concerned that the dropout rate will increase. Colleges are predicting that enrollment in college in the fall will be down at least 20%. So these are our assumptions.
Brancaccio: So given, now, the pandemic reversing what you had seen as a positive trend in this area, what needs to be done do you think?
Lewis: Well, the first thing, I think, is the way we think about this issue. So after the 2008 financial crisis, America’s image of disconnected young people were recent college graduates forced to move into their parents’ basements because there were no jobs available. But the reality is, the data show, that these young people were less affected than people who didn’t have a college degree, and they were the fastest young people to recover from the crisis while millions of other young people were left behind.
My concern as the country moves to a recovery from the pandemic is that young people from the most disadvantaged communities with the fewest resources will find themselves, once again, at the back of the line.
So, in the short term, disconnected young people need monetary assistance. And with the economy in tatters, we really need to mitigate the effects of the fact that young people won’t have access to summer jobs or kind of any sort of job in the in the near-term.
We also need to help them continue their education with better support for online learning, and resources to help them catch up in the fall.
But just looking ahead, in the long-term, we really need to address larger issues like residential segregation, poverty, poor-quality schools and transportation systems, an absence of meaningful work and discrimination.