The "disconnected youth" paradigm: one size does not fit all
In recent years, national foundations and policy organizations as well as cities across the country have focused their efforts on advocating for and designing interventions for “disconnected youth”—that is, young people usually between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither working nor going to school. With good reason too—these young people face tremendous obstacles as they transition to adulthood and are at very high risk of getting stuck in the poverty trap. However, focusing exclusively on this one measure of youth vulnerability can blind us to the unique issues of our fast-growing immigrant communities.
For example, consider three different communities in the state of Maryland—Cumberland, Landover, and Langley Park. All have roughly 20,000 residents and poverty rates between 15 and 21 percent. But their underlying demographics are very different. In Cumberland, native born Caucasians are the most prominent group, while in Landover most residents are African American. In Langley Park, Latino immigrants and their children make up the largest segment of the population.
If you look at the numbers from the 2006-2011 American Community Survey (ACS) on enrollment in school and employment status for young men between the ages of 16 to 19, you quickly start to see clear differences across these three communities.
About the same proportion of young people is dedicated exclusively to school in all three places, but while youth in the African American and Caucasian communities have higher rates of disconnection, they also more frequently stay in school if they choose to work. In contrast, nearly 40 percent of all young men in Langley Park withdraw from school altogether to seek employment.
Narrowly focusing on the “disconnection” statistics, folks in the policy and foundation worlds alike have commented to me on several occasions things like, “We don’t have to worry about Latino youth as much. They’re really not that vulnerable.” But these assumptions overlook the tough realities of many of these youth’s lives.
Immigrant kids often need to grow up too fast. In focus groups and interviews with immigrant families, I routinely hear stories about young people dropping out of school early to take on very adult responsibilities, even when they’re doing as well or better than their peers in school. They want to help support their families and make their way in the world, often with little or no help from our traditional federal safety net programs.
We can all learn something from their work ethic and commitment. The only problem is that they don’t have the education they need to escape intergenerational poverty. Nearly 80 percent of the young men not in school in Langley Park lack a high school diploma, compared with only around half of similar Landover and Cumberland youth.
Unlike our more established Caucasian and African American communities, the problem for the children of immigrants often isn’t too much disconnection. It’s too much connection to low-skill employment too early, at the cost of adequate education and long-term economic stability.
Given that immigrant youth will account for the great majority of our population growth in the coming decades, we can’t afford to ignore this important difference. We must tailor our policy responses to reflect the diversity of youth experiences.