(August 2004) Everyone needs a break occasionally. But the rising number of minority “disconnected” youth in the United States — teens ages 16 to 19 who are both out of school and out of work — is cause for concern.

Among some groups, the percentages are reaching crisis proportions: Nearly a quarter of African Americans ages 18 to 19, for instance, fall into the disconnected category. And observers say disconnected children and young adults are at risk for lives on society’s margins. “By the time they reach their early 20s, they find themselves facing adulthood unprepared, unsupported and dispirited,” says Douglas Nelson, president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

No Longer a Hidden Issue

Disconnected teens include high school dropouts, young parents, and juvenile offenders. In 2003, 8 percent of U.S. residents ages 16 to 19, about 1.4 million youth, were not in school and not holding a job, according to U.S. Labor Department data reported by the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics.1 The share of disconnected youth among African Americans and Hispanics was 12 percent, double the rate for whites.

The heavy presence of African Americans and Latinos in the disconnected population is bringing new attention to what employment expert David Brown describes as a traditionally “hidden” American problem.

“There’s been a growing awareness about disconnected youth in recent years,” said Brown, executive director of the National Youth Employment Coalition, a Washington, D.C. nonpartisan group. Brown says that the economy’s stagnation since 2001 is one factor contributing to this trend, since youth usually are “the last hired, first fired, and last rehired.” According to Brown, new data are also pointing to higher-than-expected school dropout rates overall, particularly in urban areas with large numbers of minority youth.

A New Lost Generation?

Even more disturbing to many researchers are data for those ages 18 and 19, who are at the outer edge of the traditional age for high school attendance. Among this group, 23 percent of African Americans and 20 percent of Hispanics were not in school and not working last year (see Table 1). These figures have risen 10 percent since just 2000.

Table 1
Youth Not In School and Not Working, 2003

Race/Ethnicity Total, ages 16-19 Ages 18-19 Only
White 6% 10%
African American 12% 23%
Hispanic 12% 20%
Total 8% 14%

Source: Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, citing U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, accessed online at www.childstats.gov/ac2004/tables/ed6a.asp on August 13, 2004.

The problem of disconnected youth extends throughout the country. According to KIDS COUNT, an annual Casey Foundation project, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia had the highest rate of disconnected youth — 14 percent each — between 2000 and 2002. Twenty states — including Mississippi, Texas, and Arizona — had double-digit percentages (see Table 2).2

But Nancy Martin, research associate at the American Youth Policy Forum, a research and advocacy group in Washington, D.C., argues that the problem is most pressing in urban areas. And Martin says the problem is increasing as more students leave high school after failing to pass the new high-stakes tests required for a diploma.

Some overburdened schools may even encourage these youths to drop out, according to Martin. In Brooklyn, N.Y., Advocates for Children, an educational legal aid group, has filed a class-action suit alleging that schools unfairly push out children who may drag down graduation rates and test scores — two measures increasingly important under the federal 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. “There are signs that schools weed out trouble cases,” Martin says.

Nationwide, one indicator of this culling may be the large number of high school youth in General Educational Development (GED) programs, second-chance services originally conceived for adults.3 According to the GED Testing Service in Washington, D.C., youth under age 18 accounted for one of every five GED recipients in 2000. While a GED is one component of getting youth “reconnected,” Martin said, it does not alone pave the way toward college or a high-paying job.

KIDS COUNT’s Nelson lists three other reasons why teens fall into the disconnected youth category:

  • Foster care: Too many teens leave this system without support services or mentors to help in the transition to adulthood.
  • Teen pregnancy: Despite recent declines in their numbers, 850,000 teenage mothers nationwide still face educational and service challenges. “These numbers are still far too high,” says Nelson.
  • Juvenile delinquency: Most juvenile offenders age 16 and older never return to formal schooling, Nelson says, citing data from the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group.

Paths to Reconnection

Locally, many communities and foundations already sponsor outreach programs for disconnected youth. In San Jose, Calif., for instance, the Silicon Valley Children’s Fund operates a college scholarship program for foster care youth, offering mentoring and counseling as well as educational assistance. Most major cities have teen pregnancy prevention programs, and Nelson says community colleges increasingly fill a void by bringing idle youth back into the education and workforce development system in search of better jobs.

But analysts say these programs simply can’t reach all disconnected youth without additional government or private funding. “We have some really good model programs out there,” Martin says. “We simply have to bring them to scale.”

How the federal government responds to the crisis is still up for debate. Some lawmakers want increased funding for job training, mentoring, and education programs. But there is greater consensus behind efforts to better target resources already available to states and localities. In fall 2003, a White House Commission on Disadvantaged Youth found an astonishing 355 federal programs serving young people, but also found little coordination among the programs to focus on pressing needs.

Three lawmakers have used the commission’s recommendations to propose a Federal Youth Development Council that would help set priorities, beginning with the most disadvantaged youth. “We live in an age of opportunity and challenge,” said Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., one co-sponsor of the council idea, “but not every person has equal access to these possibilities.”

Charles Dervarics is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va., who specializes in education, health and employment issues.


  1. Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey analysis of data on teens not in school and not working, accessed online at www.childstats.gov/ac2004/tables/ed6a.asp, on August 18, 2004.
  2. The 2004 KIDS COUNT report offers two similar-sounding but qualitatively different categories that measure the numbers of “disconnected” young people. The report defines “disconnected youth” (also known as “idle teens”) as teenagers between ages 16 and 19 who are not enrolled in school (full- or part-time) and not employed (full- or part-time).” But the report uses “disconnected young adults” to describe “persons ages 18 to 24 who: (1) are not presently enrolled in school; (2) are not currently working; and (3) have no degree beyond a high school diploma or GED.” The report goes on to say that “[t]his measure reflects those young adults who are considered having difficulty navigating what most would consider a successful transition to adulthood.” For more information, go to www.aecf.org/kidscount/databook/pdfs_e/def_data_e.pdf, pages 191 and 197. The 2004 KIDS COUNT Data Book is available online at www.aecf.org.
  3. American Council on Education, GED Testing Service, “Who Passed the GED? GED 2002 Statistical Report,” accessed online at www.gedtest.org, on Aug. 18, 2004.

For More Information

GED Testing Service, American Council on Education, www.acenet.edu

Annie E. Casey Foundation, www.aecf.org

Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, www.childstats.gov

National Youth Employment Coalition, www.nyec.org

American Youth Policy Forum, www.aypf.org