Urban Wire Dropping out and clocking in
Molly M. Scott
Display Date

Media Name: whiteboard-video.jpg

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post about an interesting trend my team and I found while working with an immigrant Promise Neighborhood outside of Washington, DC: a large proportion of high-school aged young people had left school early without their diploma and were working instead.

We wondered if the trend was something unique to immigrants and their kids, but as the brief we’re releasing today shows, that’s simply not the case. Nearly 30 percent of young people without a high school diploma between the ages of 16 and 18 are working and not in school. These young workers are indeed disproportionately Hispanic and first-generation immigrants, but three-quarters are native-born US citizens.

Why aren’t these kids in school?

Household dynamics provide important clues as to why these kids might be working. Nearly a third come from families that fall below the federal poverty line, and another third come from families just above that level. Despite this need, working youths’ families have very limited access to the federal safety net: only 17 percent receive social security or TANF benefits, and only 23 percent receive food stamps.

The adults in these families often lack high school diplomas, which may prevent them from earning enough to compensate for this gap. A disproportionately high share of households with working youth have no member with more than an eighth-grade education. Youth living in households with so little education are more than twice as likely to drop out and work than other kids who leave school early.

What kind of work do they do?

Youth work in a broad array of mostly low-skill occupations like food preparation, sales, construction, building, grounds cleaning, and maintenance. About half of these youth work 40 weeks or more out of the year, at an average of 31 hours in a given week. And they make a bit more than just pocket change.

Mean earnings fall around $9,500 a year, just below the poverty line for a single worker. But these wages make a big difference to their households. On average, working youth account for 21 percent of their families’ income; 10 percent of these youth contribute more than half. These contributions lift 42 percent of poor households over the poverty line, and help 45 percent of cost-burdened households spend less than 30 percent of their income on housing.

What does this mean for their futures?

But important questions still remain.

We don’t know for sure if working youth drop out first and then work, or if work or economic necessity are core motivations for dropping out. There is some precedent, however, for thinking the latter may be the case for some young people. A recent nationally representative survey of Latinos found that nearly 70 percent discontinued their education, either before or after receiving their high school diploma, to work and help support their families.

There is also virtually no research examining how these early work experiences affect long-term outcomes for young people who have dropped out of school. How likely are these youth to go back to complete their basic education and continue on to higher education? How does this affect their ability to earn a living wage? What kinds of early work experience are most conducive to building ladders of opportunity?

And lastly, questions linger about whether these traditional work experiences are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the economic ways many young people are contributing to their households. Ongoing Urban Institute research in communities across the country is uncovering many ways that poor youth are putting themselves at great risk and hustling for money, food, and other basic essentials when their families simply do not have enough to feed, clothe, and shelter them.

So why does this matter?

If a lot of low-income youth are, in fact, dropping out in whole or in part to help meet their basic needs, our approaches to supporting these kids may need to change. We can’t keep thinking about drop-out prevention only in terms of academic enrichment and behavioral intervention. Economic problems have economic solutions, whether it’s experimenting with conditional cash transfers, offering deeper and wider non-cash benefits, or applying two-generation approaches that boost the earning capacity of parents and help ensure that youth employment supports ongoing education.

With stagnating wages for low-income people and a fraying federal safety net, more and more families may be facing difficult tradeoffs between investing in their children’s education and making ends meet.

We’ve got to try to understand these issues better. The stakes are too high not to.


Tune in and subscribe today.

The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Economic mobility and inequality Children and youth
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center