Spotlight Exclusives

Disconnected Youth: A Policy Priority after the Great Recession

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Increasing attention has been paid to the growing ranks of America۪s youth who are disconnected from school and work, and who face endemic challenges to accessing opportunity. Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity recently asked several experts to address the challenge of “disconnected youth” and what we can do about it. Read what they had to say here.

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.

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

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

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

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty.  If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at

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