CREDIT: <a href="">Adley Haywood</a> (<a href="">CC</a>).
CREDIT: Adley Haywood (CC).

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Commentary: Civic Engagement: One Simple Solution to Youth Disconnection

Feb 2, 2015

In 2013, over 2.8 million students in the United States were the proud recipients of bachelor's and associates degrees. That same year, about twice as many young adults were neither in school nor working. This translates to more than five and a half million young people who were disconnected from both of these anchor institutions. Who are these young people, and what can be done to help get them on track towards a productive and meaningful adulthood?

Our research on this topic shows that the high personal costs of youth disconnection—teenagers and young adults ages 16 to 24 who are neither in school nor working—are not borne equally. We found racial variation to be tremendous. While about one in eight young Americans in this age range are out of school and work, the rate for African-American young men is one in four, and for Native Americans, the rate is one in five. But another important finding of our research really points the way to solutions that extend beyond a singular focus on workforce readiness and landing that first job. The typical disconnected young person has had a limited, low-quality education and has grown up in poverty surrounded by adults who themselves are also struggling with connection—to employment, to a solid education, and to strong social networks. Put simply: disconnected neighborhoods produce disconnected kids.

In a research project carried out with Opportunity Nation, we examined in-depth one aspect of these challenges: the role social networks play in the lives of disconnected youth. This new research suggests that civic engagement among young people, specifically unpaid volunteering, can play a surprisingly pivotal role in their lives. In fact, the likelihood that a young person is disconnected is cut in half if she or he volunteers with an organization, whether it be a school, church, youth or service organization, etc. This finding holds true for all of the country's 25 largest cities and for youth of low socioeconomic status, teens and young adults with children of their own, and youth of color. Rates of youth disconnection in America's 25 most populous cities are here. Volunteering helps them learn or build the social skills and contacts so vital for first entering the working world, staying employed, and advancing in one's career.

These findings complement and reinforce previous research that has connected volunteering to a whole array of good outcomes for young people, ranging from increased self-confidence and positive social behavior to higher earnings potential and greater job prestige.1

Of course, meaningful volunteer opportunities are not evenly distributed. Young people whose families and neighbors have few ties to mentors or internship and job connections are least likely to have these opportunities. And they are also most at risk of disconnection. So this new research points the way to targeting volunteer and other civic engagement opportunities for youth who are most in danger of falling through the cracks.

Why does Youth Disconnection Matter?

The teens and early twenties are critical years for acquiring the skills and confidence and building the connections so crucial for future success. Research shows that those who struggle to get a foothold as young adults often suffer lasting scars that impact future earnings, financial independence, and physical and mental health for years to come (OECD, 2011). But youth disconnection is also a costly problem for us all. In 2011, disconnected youth cost a staggering $93 billion in government assistance and uncollected taxes (White House Council 2011). Disconnected youth are twice as likely to be on Medicaid. They collect six times as much government support as their "connected" counterparts (Burd-Sharps, 2015).

Some attention has been paid to the impact of the mid-2000s Great Recession on young people. Indeed, the Great Recession was tough on youth employment. But what is clear from our calculations, using Census Bureau data from well before the recession began, is that the numbers of disconnected youth are finally starting to ebb from their high of over 5.8 million in 2010. Yet even when this rate returns to its pre-Recession "low," there will still remain literally millions of youth living in communities across the nation who are isolated economically, socially, and politically from the mainstream. These communities, and the young people within them, must be reengaged and reconnected if there is any hope of moving the needle on this problem.

Source: Measure of America analysis of U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey 2006-2013 PUMS.

Measure of America's work on disconnected youth has made one point abundantly clear. Youth disconnection stems from a host of interlocking factors and has no easy solution. Providing more volunteer opportunities for youth is clearly a great first step. Doing so will help those young people who are disconnected today. But to prevent disconnection in the future, we need to improve conditions and expand opportunities in today's highly-disconnected communities.

Our alternatives are clear:

  • We can pay for success now by investing in supportive interventions with fragile families: high-quality preschool, wrap-around schools for poor children, relevant high-school curricula that includes career, technical education, and links to apprenticeships, and greater assistance for low-income young people to attend and complete college;
  • Or we can pay for failure later, picking up the tab for juvenile justice, crime, public assistance and poor health, reducing American competitiveness—all costs of leaving these young people behind.


1 Johnson, Beebe, Mortimer and Snyder, 1998; Yates and Youniss, 1996; Uggen and Janikula, 1999; Jastrzab, Blomquist, Masker, and Orr, 1997.


Bailey, M.J., and Dynarski, S.M., "Inequality in Post-Secondary Education," in Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children's Life Chances, edited by Greg J. Duncan and Richard J. Murnane. New York:, Russell Sage, 2011.

Burd-Sharps, Sarah and Kristen Lewis, "One in Seven: Ranking Youth Disconnection in the 25 Largest Metro Areas," Measure of America, 2012.

Burd-Sharps, Sarah and Kristen Lewis, "Out of School and Out of Work: Youth Disconnection in America's Cities 2015," Measure of America, (forthcoming April 2015).

Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), "All Together Now: Collaboration and Innovation for Youth Engagement," 2013.

Corporation for National and Community Service, Volunteering As A Pathway To Employment: Does Volunteering Increase Odds of Find a Job for the Out of Work?, 2013.

Jastrzab, J., Blomquist, J., Masker, J., & Orr, L. "Youth Corps: Promising strategies for young people and their communities." Cambridge, MA: Abt Associates Inc. 1997.

Johnson, M. K., Beebe, T., Mortimer, J. T., & Snyder, M. "Volunteerism in Adolescence: A process perspective." Journal of Research on Adolescence, 8(3), 309- 332, 1998.

Kahne, J., Middaugh, E., Democracy for Some: The Civic Opportunity Gap in High School. CIR- CLE Working Paper, 2008.

Lewis, Kristen and Sarah Burd-Sharps, "Halve the Gap By 2030: Youth Disconnection in America's Cities," Measure of America, 2013.

National Conference on Citizenship, Millennials Civic Health Index, 2013.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. OECD Social Employment and Migration Working Papers No. 106. Paris: OECD Publishing, 2011.

Putnam, R. D., Frederick, C.B., Snellman, K., "Growing Class Gaps in Social Connectedness among American Youth," Harvard Kennedy School of Government, The Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America, 2012.

Uggen, C., and Janikula, J., "Volunteerism and Arrest in the Transition to Adulthood." Social Forces 78:331-62, 1999.

White House Council for Community Solutions, "Community Solutions for Opportunity Youth." The $93 billion includes 6.7 million disconnected youth, as this report uses a different definition of disconnected youth.

Yates, M., and Youniss, J., "A Developmental Perspective on Community Service in Adolescence." Social Development 5(1): 85-111. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9507.1996.tb00073.x. 2006.

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