Spotlight Exclusives

Realigning Our Priorities to Help Disconnected Youth

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I۪m writing this on the eve of the election, but, sad to say, it isn۪t especially relevant to the outcome of the presidential race. Disconnected youth have not been a major focus in the campaign, and I۪m afraid that is no surprise. 

We have to do better at addressing disconnected youth, although even the possibility of doing better is very much dependent on the outcome of the election. To make a real difference, there are two areas of focus going forwardfederal policy and local action.
The challenge in federal policy in a nutshell is to get the Department of Labor, which has the more focused ideas but little money, into a productive working relationship with the Department of Education, which has the broader responsibility of preventing disconnection and more funding. There are many more issues, to be sure, but that۪s the heart of it.  

Other critical federal issues include the Perkins Act, which is coming up for reauthorization and which we need to reinvent. The Workforce Investment Act still languishes without reauthorization, and disconnected youth are a part of who loses out in the torpor. The Obama Administration had some good ideas about community colleges, but they shrank in the money laundry. 
The federal government needs to see the whole picture. This includes recognizing pathways that begin in high school and eventuate in jobs, most often with some kind of postsecondary credential, and involving paid work experience as part of the academic program; mentoring and coaching; and programs like YouthBuild that pick up the pieces after the disconnection occurs. 

Juvenile and criminal justice reform are both part of the agenda, as is child welfare reform. Pregnancy prevention is highly relevant, too. Americorps is a vital support, as is full funding for Pell grants.

I also think it۪s past time to create a large-scale employment and service program that aids young people when the labor market doesn۪t want them and prepares them more effectively for the jobs of today and tomorrow, and for citizenship at the same time.
But the challenge is also localto build a system in each local area that asks what has to be done to help all young people succeed, and coming as close to zero as humanly possible in how many young people it loses.

We made strides here and there over the past four years, but we have a long way to go.

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Peter Edelman is a professor of law at Georgetown Law Center and faculty co-director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Public Policy. 

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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