A 'Crisis' Among Youth: How To Re-Connect?

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Young New Yorkers whose days are absent of education or employment, and whose futures look cloudy at best, are a population on the rise. Called “disconnected youth,” they are teenagers and young adults from 16 to 24 years old who don't attend school and don't go to work. This group contributes to financial and social costs such as a smaller tax base, weaker communities and higher expenditures on public benefits. New York City faces a choice: invest now in re-engaging these young people, or pay later for the consequences of insufficient action.

That was the message of a panel discussion held this month to examine a recent report by the Community Service Society, “Out of Focus,” which reviews this “civic crisis” and the public funding available to address it. The report says there are over 163,000 disconnected young people ages 16 to 24. Add that to the number of officially “unemployed” (meaning those actively seeking work) and the city has more than 220,000 idle young people – nearly one in five of the total age group.

“It’s a tidal wave that is rapidly growing and it’s going to explode,” said Evelyn Fernandez-Ketcham, a panelist and the executive director of New Heights Neighborhood Center, a non-profit organization that provides workforce development for disconnected youth.

The study found that existing public education and workforce funding for programs targeted to young people serves no more than seven percent of New York City’s disconnected youth. The report cites that disconnected youth often are placed in programs that are designed either for prevention of the problem, or for adults. Funding streams are also fragmented, making coordination difficult for organizations that provide services to young people – and almost impossible for youth trying to reconnect. “There are a low number of programs designed just for young people and these different programs are split across different agencies,” said Lazar Treschan, co-author of the report and director of the Disconnected Youth Campaign at CSSNY.

The CSSNY report presents the first side-by-side comparison of public funding for education and workforce development programs available to re-engage this population. It excludes services for specific subgroups, such as those aging out of the foster care system or developmentally disabled individuals. Several initiatives budgeted in fiscal 2008 but not yet implemented were also excluded from the comparison.

The landscape portrayed shows few places for disconnected youth to turn for help. The city’s 311 information service has little information on programs, there is no citywide resource book or Web site for young people looking to start over, and there is no unified strategy on the part of the city to reach out to disconnected youth.

Candice Pierre, a 17-year-old from Brooklyn who has tried to find work, and is now seeking to enter a special school, would like a helping hand to get back on track to the life she wants. “I don’t feel that calling us disconnected is a proper term to use,” said Pierre. “When you use the word 'disconnected' it seems like we’re not willing to be connected, and that’s not true.”

Professionals in the field find the current numbers particularly troubling because new trends buck the expected patterns. The number of disconnected youth has grown to unprecedented levels in recent years, reaching its highest level—nearly 16 percent of New Yorkers in the 16-to-24 age group—at the lowest point of the economic downturn, in 2003. After four successive years of job growth and strong efforts at high school reform, however, the numbers have barely changed from 167,781 to 163,304 disconnected youth today. In the past, youth school enrollment ran “counter-cyclical” to the economy. During times of economic growth, school enrollment decreased but more young people entered the work force. During economic downturns, school enrollment increased. But the economic downturn of 2001 did not increase school enrollment, nor did the subsequent four years of economic gains bring young people into the workforce.

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