Spotlight Exclusives

Reconnecting Disconnected Youth۝

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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.

The problem of “disconnected youth” has been receiving much national attention lately, especially during these tough financial times. The term “disconnected youth” can be helpful because it points us to the answer, that is, a framework for reconnection. Yet the challenge is not simply “connecting.” To thrive, young people need personal, strong, and long connections.

Successful connections comprise three main characteristics. They are personal, meaning the connections are tailored to the context and character of the individual. They are strongthe ability of the connection to withstand pressures. And they are longthe view that because time is the currency of connections, how much time is invested۪ in these connections affects their strength.

This framework suggests that reconnection is best done by people not programs. Organizations that personalize and contextualize their support of these youth, and, importantly, do so over a longer period, are likely to be more efficacious than uniformly provided programs operated by government. Government has a role to play for sure, but not as a provider.

Due to the importance of reconnecting with work, government should incentivize businesses to hire younger people who are most likely less experienced and less productive for set periods of time to help them gain important work experience, without which getting work will be far more difficult. This could include an extension of the youth minimum wage from 90 days to 180 days.

Regarding education, K-12 should be more personalized, including a greater focus on vocational courses in high school and far greater parent and student educational self-determination, for example through school choice. Post-secondary education needs to focus far more on completion longevity than on access. Higher education funding needs to be realigned to provide incentives for completion not acceptance. Most contractors get half their payment up front and half on successful completion of the job. Why should universities be any different?

Last, we must not neglect the strength of connections that are enabled from life skills learned outside of education and work. In the past, these skills, including, conflict resolution or money management, were learned in family. With 41 percent of all births now outside marriage, and research showing that children from broken homes are twice as likely to be disconnected as those from married families, we must redouble our efforts to strengthen families.

Recognizing the importance of these life skills for those who were unable to learn them from family and serving youth through a framework of reconnection, will give young people both what they need and what they deserve.

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

Peter Mitchell is an associate at the Clapham Group.

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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