rocketBack in 2012, we co-released a report with the Annie E. Casey Foundation – Youth and Work: Restoring Teen and Young Adults Connections to Opportunity – which looked at the state of disconnected youth (those not enrolled in school or working, even part-time). We found that the number of disconnected youth ages 16-24 in Kentucky had jumped 49 percent from 2000 to 2011. This startling statistic had grave implications for our state’s future success – the lack of education, opportunity, and connection to school or work places youth at risk of long-term instability, leaves our 21st century economy without skilled employees, and increases spending on safety net programs.

Given the findings of a new report released last month, it seems we weren’t sufficiently galvanized into action. Measure of America, a nonpartisan project of the Social Science Research Council, released Zeroing In on Place and Race: Youth Disconnection in America’s Cities on June 10th. The report’s focus on cities resulted in coverage by Louisville media at WFPL and the Courier-Journal – the 2013 data shows the Louisville Metropolitan Area (which includes surrounding counties) has 14.0 percent of youth ages 16-24 disconnected from education and employment. That is an unacceptable statistic; however, it is the data for other geographic areas (such as Congressional Districts and counties) that should really command our attention.

Looking at the 2013 data for Kentucky regionally by Congressional Districts, we see that District 5 in Eastern Kentucky has 22.0 percent of youth ages 16-24 disconnected. Not only is this significantly greater than Kentucky’s next highest region, District 1 at 16.3 percent, but there are only ten Congressional Districts in the nation with a higher rate! Even the best-performing Congressional District, District 3 (covering most of Jefferson County), has more than one in every ten youth ages 16-24 disconnected, at 11.5 percent.

Percent of Disconnected Youth Ages 16-24, by Congressional District

percent of discounted youth by district

A review of the data at the county level is even more shocking. Of the seventy worst counties in the nation, where disconnected youth rates are 37 percent or higher, seven are in Kentucky. Six of those seven (Bracken, Lee, McCreary, Martin, Morgan and Wolfe Counties) are in Eastern Kentucky. This data is an excellent example of the need for localized data. While Kentucky’s rate of disconnected youth dropped from 21 percent in 2011 to 15 percent in 2013, we see huge variation across the state, with a handful of counties experiencing four in every ten youth ages 16-24 disconnected from school and work. Hover over the map to see your county’s data.

Note: Data not available for all Kentucky counties due to reliability.

The data clearly tells us we have a problem; in fact, in some counties you could call it a crisis. So, the question is how to solve it. The first step is recognizing that this is not just a matter of individual choice. There are systemic contributors to youth disconnection that will continue to damage our economy and communities if we treat each youth as an individual failure to launch and ignore the impact of their environment. The following community characteristics are associated with high rates of youth disconnection:

  • High-poverty neighborhoods: Approximately one in five young people in high-poverty neighborhoods (where more than 20 percent of residents are poor) are disconnected, compared to only about one in fourteen youth in low-poverty neighborhoods (poverty rates below 5.5 percent).
  • High rates of adult unemployment: Youth in neighborhoods with high levels of adult employment are much more likely to be connected to school and work.
  • Low levels of adult educational attainment: The amount of education the adults in a neighborhood have is a strong predictor of how likely youth are to be in school.
  • High degrees of racial segregation: In highly segregated metro areas, black youth tend to have higher-than-average rates of disconnection, whereas white youth tend to have lower-than-average rates of disconnection.

Therefore, we need to connect isolated, opportunity-scarce communities back into the wider society and create meaningful opportunities within them. Macro policy implications range from dispersing high concentrations of poverty by changing zoning laws and building low-income housing in mixed-income neighborhoods, to redesigning public support programs and services toward two-generation approaches that address the education and employment needs of parents while helping children thrive.

As the new report says, “Disconnection is not a spontaneously occurring phenomenon; it is an outcome years in the making.” Therefore, we can prevent pathways to disconnection for young children with proven home visiting programs like HANDS, high-quality preschool, and a strong K-12 education. And we must prevent high school drop-outs by helping each student envision their future career. Schools and community partners need to provide students the opportunity to learn skilled trades or gain early job experience through vocational and technical training, job shadowing, internships, work-study programs, volunteerism and summer jobs.

For those youth who have already disconnected from school and work, a multifaceted approach is needed that works across systems and sectors. Not only do disconnected youth need education and job training, many also need supportive services to address health, housing and transportation issues, and strong relationships with adults to learn the soft skills and confidence required to succeed. Becoming a mentor is a powerful way to build relationships with youth who are already disconnected, or who are at risk of becoming disconnected. Get involved by connecting with programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters or MENTOR in your community.