Among minorities, a new wave of ‘disconnected youth’

September 20, 2012

Men and women in their late teens and early 20s are struggling, but some are especially hard hit.

According to U.S. Census Bureau figures, the unemployment rate last year among high-school dropouts between ages 16 and 24 was 29 percent—up from 17.7 percent in 2000 and seven points higher than that of their peers who finished high school but didn’t go on to college.

The problem is particularly acute among Hispanics and African-Americans. Several studies have found that only about 50 percent of black and Hispanic students graduate from high school, compared with 75 percent of white students.

Up to 40 percent of the young people in these communities qualify as “disconnected youth,” the term for young adults who are neither in school nor working, says David Dodson, president of MDC Inc., a research organization in Durham, NC.

“They’ve given up hope,” says Phillip Jackson, executive director of Chicago’s Black Star Project, which helps African American youth stay in school. He estimates that 75 percent to 80 percent of the young black men in Chicago are jobless. About “Generation Jobless”

Americans 25 and under face one of the toughest job markets in modern history. This week, The Wall Street Journal explores their stories. “It leads to violence, broken families and hyper-incarceration,” for economic crimes that range from selling bootleg CDs to drug trafficking, he says.

The depressed job market means that competition for low-skill positions is fierce, as young dropouts compete with older and better-educated workers who are being pushed down the jobs ladder.

“It was hard enough for people without a high-school diploma before the downturn. Those folks are at the back of the line now,” says Jonathan Bowles, director of the Center for an Urban Future in New York City.

Summer Forbes, 19 years old, dropped out of her Hartford, CT., high school at 17. It “wasn’t for me,” she says. She spends her days hanging out with friends, completing the requirements for her diploma through an online program and checking Craigslist for job ads.

Two years ago, she managed to find a temporary job she liked at a day-care center. But when it ended in the summer of 2009, she found that she couldn’t get back into the field without her certification for early-childhood education.

Since then, she has cycled through low-wage, often seasonal positions at retail stores, fast-food outlets and social-service organizations.

“I’m tired of waking up and worrying, worrying, worrying about where my next job is going to be,” she says.

Andrew Sum, an economist at Northeastern University who studies disconnected youth, says dropouts will suffer a lifetime earnings loss of around $400,000 compared with high-school graduates.

There are costs to society as well. A 2004 study for the New Mexico Business Roundtable for Educational Excellence found that 10 years worth of male dropouts would pay $944 billion less in taxes over the course of their lifetimes than their high-school-graduate counterparts.

“This is the only group with no net contribution to the fiscal well-being of state and national government,” says Mr. Sum.