Low high school graduation rates and sharply declining employment rates continue to plague disadvantaged youth, especially young men. We review the evidence base on programs and policies such as youth development for adolescents and young teens; programs seeking to improve educational attainment and employment for in-school youth; and programs that try to "reconnect" those who are out of school and frequently out of work, including public employment programs. We identify a number of programmatic strategies that are promising or even proven, based on rigorous evaluations, for disadvantaged youth with different circumstances.
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It is increasingly well known that employment rates among less-educated young men, especially young African American men, have declined sharply in recent years. Sum et al. (2008) point out that there was no net gain in employment for U.S. teens and young adults over 2000-2007, and they have been the largest net losers of jobs in the labor market downturn that began in 2007. At the same time that their labor force participation rates have dwindled, incarceration rates among young men have risen dramatically. At any point in time, large numbers of these young men are "disconnected" from both school and work (Edelman, Holzer, and Offner 2006).
What programs and policies might be undertaken that could prevent this disconnection from occurring and improve the educational and employment outcomes of these young men? Some experts (e.g., Heckman 2008) have grown very skeptical about the cost-effectiveness of educational and workforce development policies for disadvantaged youth as well as adults. Indeed, while some youth advocates claim that we have a strong knowledge base on what "works" for disadvantaged youth (e.g., Bowles and Brand 1992), the evidence from rigorous evaluation efforts has been much less positive. For example, the evaluation of the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) in the 1990s showed positive impacts for adult men and women, while those for youth generally ranged from zero to negative (Holzer 2009), and the tendency of short-term positive effects in the Job Corps and other studies to fade with time has become increasingly clear (Schochet, Burghardt, and McConnell 2008; Bloom 2009).
On the other hand, a careful review of the evidence in a range of areas indicates somewhat more positive impacts, at least in the short run, than have widely been recognized. And many programs that are not yet proven—in terms of rigorous evaluation evidence—seem at least to be quite promising, on the basis of their positive outcomes for participants, while achieving at least some substantial level of scale. Given the enormous social costs associated with low employment and high incarceration for this population, it is very important that we identify and then invest in cost-effective strategies to improve youth outcomes.
In this paper, we review what we know to date about programs to improve educational and employment outcomes for disadvantaged youth. In particular, we review youth development policies aimed at adolescents and young teens; efforts aimed at improving educational attainment and employment for at-risk youth in school (high school or community college); and programs that try to "reconnect" those who are out of school and frequently out of work. We also briefly consider public employment programs for youth. We focus the discussion most heavily on efforts proven to be effective (or ineffective) through rigorous evaluation, while also highlighting some promising programs that still require more evaluation.
After reviewing the evidence, we consider some practical proposals for implementing effective programs for youth, despite our imperfect base of knowledge about what works. A variety of important issues—such as the scale at which these efforts should be administered, the level of government that would be responsible for implementation, and how to ensure accountability and performance incentives—are considered here. We conclude with a summary of what we have learned in this investigation and what we recommend going forward.
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