Plugging in Disconnected Youth

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Months after a White House study committee published a list of recommendations, a big tent of advocates and scholars are starting to work on policies and programs to reconnect youth to their communities. 

There may be 6.7 million youth aged 16 to 24 who are not formally engaged in school, work or the armed forces, according to a 2012 academic report. They are called “disconnected youth” or more optimistically, “opportunity youth.” 

“Our community has been galvanized around the issue,” especially since a key White House report in June, said Hayling Price, policy director of the nonprofit National Human Services Assembly. That report, by the White House Council for Community Solutions outlined plans that they think can cut the number of disconnected youth by at least 10 percent.

Price’s organization was one of the co-sponsors of a Capitol Hill briefing this week discussing disconnected youth, dropout prevention and recovery, and best practices for supporters.

Disconnected youth levy a cost in both human and financial capital, whether in missed opportunities, unrealized tax payments, welfare costs or even raised risk of criminal activity. 

There are “all sorts of interventions that need to be made that would be unnecessary if we invested upstream,” said Price.

One nonprofit that works with disconnected youth is Youth Advocate Programs, a family support agency. One of its youth programs hires, trains and supervises mentors who lead interventions in the lives of disconnected youth.

Once a client and their mentor have inventoried the youth’s strengths and are ready to make a plan, “we sit down at the kitchen table, literally, [with] the family with the kid and anybody else the kid identifies as being helpful to him, supportive of him. It could be a coach, a girlfriend a best friend, a cousin,” said Shaena Fazal, national policy director at YAP.   

The plan could include vocational training, a GED, or help learning soft skills like time and money management during the first weeks of a supportive job.

“Because it’s all individualized we can do exactly what we need to do, targeting their challenges by using their strengths, their innate strengths or the strengths of their support system,” said Fazal. 

Back in Washington, D.C., “I think the Raise Up Act is the most viable policy solution we see,” said Price. The Act aims to coordinate and improve services to prevent and remedy disconnection. It died of neglect in this Congress, attached to another bill that is very unlikely to move. 

Price is optimistic it could pass next year, saying it’s noting terribly controversial. 

Perhaps the broadest coalition working on disconnected youth is Opportunity Nation, a bipartisan group of more than 250 nonprofits, community and faith organizations, schools and others. It held a summit last week and plans a week of action from Oct. 8. 

Their list of eight central ideas includes reauthorizing the Carl Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which allocates federal dollars to local vocational systems. 

Disconnected youth “represent a wealth of untapped talent for our country, said Mark Edwards, executive director of Opportunity Nation in a statement.  “If we are to be competitive as a nation in the global economy, we need to make sure that all our young adults have the ability to climb the ladder of success.”