In New York City, 170,000 disconnected youths and counting

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at an event for the Summer Youth Employment Program in July.

In New York City, 170,000 disconnected youths and counting

In New York City, 170,000 disconnected youths and counting
September 4, 2016

For tens of thousands of New York City teenagers and young adults, Labor Day marks the end of their summer employment and a return to their studies. These are the lucky ones.

But in the same city, for 170,000 young adults between the ages of 16 and 24, the only thing that changes between the summer and the fall is the weather and their age. These young people, who are neither in school nor working, are described by the Community Service Society as “disconnected youths.”

Darian, 21, from Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, knows he is one of the lucky ones. This month he begins a full-time staff position with Make the Road New York, a community based nonprofit. 

A city summer employment position that Darian got at MRNY after graduating high school proved pivotal. “That was definitely going to be a summer where I was unproductive, but it made a real difference when I got that check for $7.25 an hour for 25 hours a week,” recalled Darian, who declined to share his last name.

He enrolled at Medgar Evers College, then dropped out, but maintained his connection at Make The Road New York by volunteering and getting involved with community organizing.

“I was one of those young people that was not in school and not working, technically for pay,” Darian told City & State. A second summer in a paid position with Make The Road New York helped solidify his ties to the nonprofit, which advocates on issues like community empowerment, police accountability and economic justice.

Darian says in his neighborhood the summer job was more than a check. “There’s a real lack of economic stability and opportunity out here that can drive young people to have to sell drugs and before you know it your crimnalized and lose your access to public housing and school loans.”

There’s more than Darian’s anecdotal evidence to support a link between students getting a summer job and staying out of that disconnected cohort years later.

In 2014, an academic study of the City of New York’s Summer Youth Employment Program published in the Journal of Public Analysis and Management found that having summer work increased school attendance the following year, improved performance on state exams and decreased the incidence of incarceration  and mortality.

“Look at it this way: The summer youth jobs program is a key way to make sure an engaged and connected young person doesn’t become disconnected,” said Lazar Treschan, the Community Service Society’s director of youth policy. “It means that the young person with summer employment doesn’t have a blank resume.”

But Treschan argues that the Summer Youth Employment Program isn’t the way to address the  disconnected youth cohort.

Treschan says this group of young people in New York City need targeted academic, vocational and social supports because they are often dealing with the social trauma of living in poor neighborhoods where drug use and violent crime are more prevalent. “There’s usually a contributing reason why these kids have not succeeded,” Treschan said.

In 2005, when the Community Service Society identified the “disconnected cohort,” the organization found “stark racial disparities in disconnected rates,” with both male and female African-American and Latino youths having a “much higher disconnected rate” than their  non-Hispanic white and Asian peers.

“Young people represent an important part of our city's present and future,” the Community Services Society’s report Campaign For Tomorrow’s Workforce concluded. “Yet close to 1 in 7 young adults are currently out of school and out of work. These young people are at high risk of becoming permanently disengaged from the labor market, threatening their ability to break out of the cycle of poverty.”

New York City’s disconnected youth has to be put in a wider national and global context. In the United States, close to six million young people between 16 and 24 are not in school or working, according to Opportunity Nation, a nonprofit think tank. A comprehensive 2014 analysis by the Switzerland-based World Scout Bureau identified youth unemployment and increasing idleness as a serious and growing crisis on every continent but Antarctica.

Experts say that since the Great Recession, structural and long-lasting changes in the U.S. workforce have raised the bar of entry for incoming young workers in that disconnected 16 to 24 cohort.

Last month the Pew Center released a study that showed that since the Great Recession, there has been a dramatic spike in workers 65 and older returning to the workforce, which has putting the squeeze on younger workers looking for that first job.

For Treschan, these macro changes and the rise of the disconnected youth population demands new thinking in how society approaches summer employment. In a report issued earlier this year entitled “Expanding the High School Year through Universal Summer Jobs For New York City Youth,” he makes the case for integrating the summer employment experience with the rest of the academic year for student who choose to participate.

“Right now you have two different city agencies dealing with the same student,” Treschan told City & State. “Wouldn’t it be smarter to go about this holistically for the benefit of the student?” Treschan says there is also strong research that shows that the kids who are employed for the summer don’t experience what teachers call the “summer melt,” while those without jobs lose ground academically and have to catch up in the fall.

Under his proposal, every New York City high school student would be offered a summer internship. The report argues that this would help develop non-cognitive skills such as time management and determination and help reduce crime as students spend more time in structured, supervised activities. Additionally, it could contribute to higher earnings as adults.

This year, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Council added significantly to the Summer Youth Employment Program, launching multiple initiatives to broaden job opportunities to include the city’s financial, health care, advertising, real estate, government and law sectors.

“Every New York City youth, of every background, should have the opportunity to foster their interests and make connections through their first job,” de Blasio said while announcing the creation of 60,000 summer slots at 10,000 different work sites. “When more young people work, we ensure the success of the next generation, improve the long-term strength of our workforce and our economy, and take another step towards becoming a city with opportunity for all."

Yet, even with the historic commitment of funding for 60,000 slots, close to 80,000 kids went away empty handed from the lottery-based system, which is more than 3,000 more than were turned away last year.

Bob Hennelly
is a reporter for The Chief Leader.