Center for American Progress

Reconnecting Disadvantaged Young Men: An Introduction

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Book Cover for Reconnecting Disadvantaged Young MenBy several recent counts, the United States is home to 2 to 3 million youth age 16 through 24 who are without postsecondary education and “disconnected” from the worlds of school and work (Wald and Martinez 2003). By “disconnected,” we mean young people who are not in school and have been out of work for a substantial period, roughly a year or more.1 Among young minority men, and especially African-American men, the facts are particularly disturbing. For instance,

  • as few as 20 percent of black teens are employed at any time;
  • among young black men age 16 through 24 not enrolled in school,
  • only about half are working; and
  • roughly one-third of all young black men are involved with the criminal
  • justice system at any time (awaiting trial, in prison or jail, or on
  • probation or parole), and a similar percentage will spend some time
  • in prison or jail during the course of their lives.2

Why are so many young people “disconnected” from the worlds of school and work, and what can public policy do about it? Much has been written on the problems of disadvantaged youth in schools and in the labor market, and policy at all levels of government has gone through many incarnations.

Yet major problems remain unresolved and many questions remain unanswered. As we show below, recent trends in idleness or disconnection have been worse for young men—particularly African-American men—than for women.3 And in low-income communities, the incidence of disconnection is much more pronounced than elsewhere.

Long-term disconnection correlates highly with low-income family backgrounds but also with poor future economic prospects—for the individuals themselves, their spouses or partners, their communities, and their children (Besharov 1999). The United States economy can ill afford to have so many of its young people and adults be unskilled, unemployed, and thus unproductive; it cannot afford the high rates of incarceration and child poverty that frequently occur when so many men are without work.And even among men who work full time, skills often remain poor and current and future earnings well below their potential.

Many programmatic responses have proven ineffective when carefully evaluated, and many others have not even been evaluated.More broadly, the youth “system” in the U.S., if it can even be referred to as such, is highly fragmented and serves only a small fraction of youth with extra needs. Under these circumstances, a widespread perception has evolved that very little “works” for disadvantaged youth, a perception some analysts have worked hard to combat (e.g., James 1997), with mixed success.

And yet, well-implemented social policies can succeed. Our recent national experiment with welfare reform showed that states could craft constructive policies that helped raise employment levels and earnings quite dramatically among low-income single mothers, although mothers’ poverty rates have remained high (Blank and Haskins 2001).We believe it is possible to change policies and improve educational and employment outcomes for low-income young men as well.

We make no claim to pose or answer all of the questions on disconnected young men. Our focus is on education and training, broad community initiatives, financial incentives to work, and special barriers facing young offenders and noncustodial parents. Our reasons are briefly discussed here and at much greater length in following chapters.

Our analysis and policy prescriptions reflect our view that the employment problems of disconnected youth reflect both structural problems in our economy and society as well as personal choices. While declining opportunities and other barriers often constrain youths’ choices by creating incentives to disconnect from school and the workforce, personal choices matter as well, and youth must take personal responsibility for their choices. The policies we describe are designed to widen opportunity and encourage or enable young people to beat the odds and become more successful in school and work—but, ultimately, they themselves are responsible for what eventuates.

We do not address all of the critical challenges at length in this book, though all must be addressed for disconnected young people to achieve greater success. First, many members of minority groups continue to experience discrimination (particularly in housing, schooling, labor markets, and the criminal justice system) that can thwart achievement. Our nation and every community within it must continue working to eradicate current discrimination and all vestiges of past discrimination. All laws against discrimination must be fully enforced, and public education and discussion must continue to promote mutual respect and understanding across the fault lines that isolate and stigmatize affected groups.

At the intersection of race, ethnicity, and poverty, other problems disproportionately lengthen the odds of success through childhood—particularly for young people growing up in high-poverty neighborhoods. Prenatal and infant health care are less available and of lower quality. Unhealthy living environments generate higher incidences of disease and chronic health conditions, such as asthma. Schools are far more likely to be overcrowded, have less-experienced teachers, and be of lower quality. African-Americans, especially, are overrepresented in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems and, later on, in the criminal justice system.

At the same time, mass culture glorifies violence and denigrates achievement as measured by conventional norms. Peer culture on the street seems to do the same. Parents fail to read to and otherwise stimulate their young children. Violence is too often the norm for disciplining children and settling disputes within families. Drugs and alcohol have enormous deleterious effects within too many low-income families. The absence of fathers is a negative factor in many homes.

A full strategy to minimize risk of disconnection and maximize positive outcomes for children and youth would include systemic attention to children’s well-being from the time they are conceived.

Systemic attention would include bolstering the incomes of poor families that include children; encouraging marriage; improving access to health care, child care, and early childhood education; improving low-income neighborhoods, including their schools; and ensuring access to such services as legal assistance, mental health support, and drug and alcohol treatment. Special attention would be paid to children at risk of becoming enmeshed in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems—by preventing their entry into these systems whenever possible and ensuring quality care if a child or youth does become a ward of the state. More fairness in the criminal justice system and an end to discrimination would be critical as well. And we believe that systemic attention would include a variety of public policies and private actions.

Our focus in this book is much narrower than the systemic approach sketched above. But we believe that the areas we discuss are important, and that adoption of our suggestions would make an important difference in improving the educational and employment status of disconnected young men.

Youth Policies in the Next Decade: Our Focus

Our primary focus is on how to improve the educational and employment opportunities available to disconnected young men—with particular concern for African Americans and Hispanics, but not excluding whites. The trends for less-educated young women in both school enrollment and employment have been relatively positive in recent years, and women have been the focus of much attention through welfare reform. Young women are still far from where they should be, but we believe that a focus here on less-educated and low-income men is appropriate. Of course, the policies we review below will not be gender-specific in most cases and can often benefit young women as well as men. But our real interest here is to find policies that will be of particular benefit to disconnected young men.

Based on our review of the causes of continuing employment gaps and idleness among all less-educated men, especially blacks,we have chosen to focus on the following areas of policy in our review below:

  • enhancing education, training, and employment opportunities for disadvantaged youth by focusing on individual policy components and on building these components into community systems;
  • improving the incentives of less-skilled young workers—particularly low-income men—to accept employment by raising minimum wages or subsidizing earnings; and
  • addressing particularly severe barriers and disincentives faced by some disadvantaged youth, such as ex-offenders and young noncustodial fathers.

Our decisions to focus on these three areas derive directly from our review of the data, the research on youth problems, and the policy contexts. For example, the link between low levels of education and skills and the limited employment and earnings of young minorities leads us to emphasize efforts to improve these skills, both for those still in school and those who have left.

We focus on four different components of education and training policy for youth, defined by the youths’ ages and the situations they might find themselves in. These four components are (1) youth development policies aimed primarily at adolescents and early teens; (2) high school programs that can better serve the disadvantaged, including career and technical education (CTE, formerly known as vocational education), school-to-career efforts, Career Academies, and alternative (or charter) high schools; (3) community colleges; and (4) second-chance employment and training programs for out-of-school youth. We also consider the current generation of employment-related entities that work to bridge the gap between potential workers and employers.Most such “intermediaries” serve adults, but some serve older youth too.

We begin with adolescents because so much research suggests a need to reach young men relatively early—before they have detached from school or the labor market and run afoul of the law or fathered children out of wedlock. More obviously linking performance in school and job opportunities should help to better motivate boys who currently have difficulty seeing the connection, and perhaps will encourage more of them to avoid engaging in self-destructive behaviors. These links are also important for immigrant boys who often drop out of school because of pressure to support their families.

Regarding high school programs, we focus primarily on improving academic performance and linking young men and women to the job market before they disconnect. Attending college is an important goal, but better policies will not cause everyone to do so; the labor market will continue to offer opportunities to young people emerging from high school with strong occupational skills or solid work experience. Given that so many young black men in particular neither develop these skills nor get early work experience, serious attempts to remedy these failings deserve great attention.

The tight labor market, and perhaps even worker and skill shortages, that will likely be created by baby boomer retirements reinforce our focus on training and work experience. Many employers complain about their inability to hire and retain qualified workers—and many expect these difficulties to grow more serious in the coming decades—so we believe that employers might be motivated to get more involved in training and hiring at-risk youth. But, unlike the first generation of “school-to-work” policies, these efforts must be heavily targeted on less-advantaged youth. The links between school- and job-based training and work experience will also need to be stronger than in “school-to-work” policies of the 1990s. Links should be pursued within the context of CTE as well as newer “school-to-career” efforts.

High school programs that focus on students at high risk of dropping out and invite dropouts to return—often referred to as “alternative” schools—are another avenue for improving skills and educational credentials for the disconnected.Alternative schools come in many forms, though little research is available on their efficacy to date. Programs that blend high school and community college curricula are another area of growing interest we will explore, community college being an opportunity for postsecondary education for many disadvantaged youth who may not be ready for four-year programs. Improving access to community college education for minorities and low-income people is thus on our agenda as well.

Of course, the need will remain for “second-chance” programs for out-of-school youth. We consider current efforts—including Job Corps, the various youth “service corps,” YouthBuild, and others—that develop the skills and also the attitudes, values, and behavior of these young men. But, given the multiple “mismatches,” persistent discrimination, and weak networks that divide disconnected young men from employers, the need will continue for other approaches that bridge the many gaps.

Third-party “intermediaries”—community organizations, for-profit or nonprofit job placement agencies, or other institutions with close ties to specific industry groups—can often connect young men to employers. The current generation of intermediaries clearly understands the need to treat employers (as well as disadvantaged workers) as their clients, and to win employers’ trust by addressing business needs. Intermediaries do so by working closely with employers, providing workers with the skills and behaviors employers seek, and carefully screening candidates for job readiness.4 A closer look at the potential role of intermediaries in linking disadvantaged out-of-school youth to the labor market—and perhaps to schools as well—is thus advanced.

Our discussion of education and training will not just be limited to the four components of policy noted here. We are troubled that existing policies are fragmented, sometimes duplicative of and even inconsistent with one another. Large gaps typically separate isolated efforts to improve youth outcomes. We do not wish to add to the existing confusion.

We hope instead to encourage the creation of effective youth systems operating primarily at the local level but with support and funding from state and federal governments and other sources. These systems would ideally constitute an infrastructure that offers all youth in a local area a full range of educational and training opportunities. Youth systems would aim to involve every relevant local party—including schools; employers; community organizations; faith-based groups; local government; and foster care, child welfare, juvenile justice, and criminal justice system personnel—to create seamless webs of services. Intensive case management might be needed to keep disadvantaged youth actively involved, and incentives might have to be provided to local officials for such tracking.

But youth employment policy must go beyond a focus on education and training. Even with major improvements in education and training programs, the skills and education of many young men from low-income backgrounds will lag behind those of most other youth. Given the economic shifts over the last three decades (which we review in detail in the next chapter), less-educated young men now face fewer job opportunities and lower wages (adjusted for inflation and relative to more-educated workers) than they did a generation ago—and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The decline in wages and the related disappearance of blue-collar jobs have clearly reduced the incentives for many young men to enter and remain attached to the legitimate labor market. Declining labor force attachment imposes major costs not only on young men, but also on their families and children, on their communities, and on our nation.

As a nation, we should increase earnings for less-educated and less-skilled young men. Raising federal and state minimum wages, which have eroded in value over time, would help. We also should consider using subsidies or tax credits to supplement earnings. In the 1990s, the nation developed a range of “work supports” for low-wage welfare mothers and custodial parents—including an expanded earned income tax credit (EITC) that subsidizes low wages by as much as 40 percent, and increased child care and health care subsidies.5 But most of these efforts have little effect on childless young men or those who are noncustodial parents.6 Efforts to raise or subsidize their low earnings should be part of a comprehensive plan to motivate them. And, where we can identify reciprocal obligations—which were successfully implemented in some states with welfare mothers—we should use them.

Incentives to work appear weakest for the growing number of ex-offenders and noncustodial fathers among young African-American men. We need special efforts to remove employment barriers and to reform punitive policies that effectively drive many out of the labor market.

What would constitute a complete range of effective policies to combat disconnection is still not fully known. Some rigorously evaluated programs have generated disappointing results, and many more have never been evaluated at all. We will try to be honest about what we do know and what we do not—and where we can only call for experimentation and evaluation rather than full-scale policy implementation.

The Remainder of This Book

The next chapter will present a detailed statistical look at youths’ school enrollment and employment rates by race and gender, and review the social science literature on youth employment. We also discuss the economic and political contexts in which youth policy will be made in the coming years. The chapter will elaborate on our focus on the three sets of issues listed above—education and training, financial incentives to work, and barriers facing young noncustodial fathers and ex-offenders.

The rest of the book is organized around these three broad areas of youth policy. Chapters 3 and 4 focus on education and training for youth and on community-wide systems, respectively. Chapters 5 and 6 explore improved work incentives and barriers facing youth offenders and noncustodial fathers. In every chapter we explore the strengths and weaknesses of existing efforts, along with proposals for innovation. We identify the most promising ideas in each area, consistent with our reading of the evaluation evidence and of the likely future policy contexts. We then conclude with a chapter that summarizes and integrates what we have learned and suggests some practical “next steps” that can be taken at the federal, state, and local levels to improve policies for young men.


1. “Disconnected” is not a term of art. Other counts of young people who are not employed or in school sometimes generate higher numbers, in the range of 4 to 5 million, though they often include youth who have attended some college. The Annie E. Casey Foundation (2004) concluded that there were 3.1 million disconnected youth age 18 to 24 in 2000, growing to 3.8 million by 2003 due to declining employment rates during that period’s recession.

2. The teen employment rate appears in the Bureau of Labor Statistics monthly Employment Situation reports (2005); the employment rate for those age 16 to 24 is documented in chapter 2,while the incarceration figures appear in various publications of the Bureau of Justice Statistics (for example, “Additional Corrections Facts at a Glance,” 2005).

3. We define “idleness” as being out of school and out of work. “Disconnection” refers to idleness for at least one year.

4. See, for instance, Giloth (2003).

5. Medicaid extensions for poor children were supplemented by the development of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) in the late 1990s.Other child care and earnings supplements were increasingly funded out of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant during this period, as the welfare caseload and cash payments out of the block grant to families dropped precipitously.

6. Childless adults age 25 to 64 are currently entitled to a maximum EITC payment of $383 per year.

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