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Disconnected Youth: A Look at 16 to 24 Year Olds Who Are Not Working or In School


In recent years, policymakers and youth advocates have focused greater attention on young people who are neither working nor in school. Generally characterized as “disconnected,” these youth may also lack strong social networks that provide assistance in the form of employment connections and other supports such as housing and financial assistance. Without attachment to work or school, disconnected youth may be vulnerable to experiencing negative outcomes as they transition to adulthood. The purpose of the report is to provide context for Congress about the characteristics of disconnected youth, and the circumstances in which they live. These data may be useful as Congress considers policies to retain students in high school and to provide opportunities for youth to obtain job training and employment.

Since the late 1990s, social science research has introduced different definitions of the term “disconnected.” Across multiple studies of disconnected youth, the ages of the youth and the length of time they are out of school or work for purposes of being considered disconnected differ. In addition, a smaller number of studies have also incorporated incarcerated youth into estimates of the population. Due to these methodological differences, the number of youth who are considered disconnected varies. According to the research, the factors that are associated with disconnection are not entirely clear, though some studies have shown that parental education and receipt of public assistance are influential.

This Congressional Research Service (CRS) analysis expands the existing research on disconnected youth. The analysis uses Current Population Survey (CPS) data to construct a definition of “disconnected.” This definition includes noninstitutionalized youth ages 16 through 24 who were not working or in school at the time of the survey (February through April) and did not work or attend school any time during the previous year. The definition is narrower than those used by other studies because it captures youth who are unemployed and not in school for a longer period of time. This is intended to exclude youth who may, in fact, be connected for part or most of a year. Youth who are both married to a connected spouse and are parenting are also excluded from the definition. For these reasons, the number and share of youth in the analysis who are considered disconnected are smaller than in some other studies. Still, 2.4 million youth ages 16 through 24—or 6.1% of this population—met the definition of disconnected in 2014, meaning that they were not in school or working for all of 2013 and at some point between February and April of 2014. Between 1988 and 2014, the rate of disconnection fluctuated between 3.9% (1999 and 2000) and 7.5% (2010). As expected, rates of disconnection have varied over time depending on economic cycles.

Like the existing research, the CRS analysis finds that a greater share of minority youth, particularly black males, are disconnected, and that their rates of disconnection have been higher over time. The analysis evaluates some other characteristics that have not been widely studied in the existing research. For instance, compared to their peers in the general population, disconnected youth tend to have fewer years of education, and are more likely to live apart from their parents and (if they married to a disconnected spouse or are not married) to have children. Disconnected youth are also twice as likely to be poor than their connected peers. The analysis further finds that the parents of disconnected youth are more likely than their counterparts to be unemployed and to have lower educational attainment.

Given the state of the current economy, rates of disconnection may remain stable or decrease. Policymakers may consider interventions to reconnect youth to work and/or school. Interventions can target children and youth at a particular stage of their early lives. Interventions can also focus on particular institutions or systems, such as the family, community, and schools.


Source: Congressional Research Service (2015). Disconnected Youth: A Look at 16 to 24 Year Olds Who Are Not Working or in School.