The Crisis of America’s Disconnected Youth—and How to Connect Them

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Photo courtesy Campaign for Youth Justice

For many young adults in America, the transition to independence is a time of excitement and possibility.

But 4.5 million young people, or a staggering 11.5 percent of youth aged 16 -24, experience entry into adulthood as “abrupt abandonment— a time of disconnection from school, work, and family,” according to lawyer and public policy expert Anne Kim.

Kim describes this disconnection as a largely unreported “crisis” in her recently published book, Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection, which focuses on the plight of young people who have become entangled with the broken foster care and juvenile justice systems, and for whom, she says, “life screeches to a halt.”

In a recent conversation with The Crime Report, Kim explained why so many young people in the system have become “invisible,” why the current election cycle offers an opportunity to focus on their plight, and suggests seven steps that can help “reconnect” young adults to civil society.

The transcript of the conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The Crime Report: Why have these 4.5 million stories and perspectives been unheard for so long? 

Anne Kim: You know, I think a large part of this is because we don’t actually count them. I mean, they are literally invisible. These are young people who neither go to school, nor work, so they are actually cut off from mainstream economic opportunity. Schooling and work are the primary avenues by which you are connected to other people, so when you’re not part of that economic mainstream, you literally don’t count.

America also doesn’t keep track of what happens with young people from the ages of 16 to 24. Other countries do. In the United Kingdom, for instance, there is a measure of what are called NEET, people who are not in education, employment or training. And every other month or so they put out an official government report that tells you and government officials the NEET percentage.

On the other hand, the U.S. Census Bureau treats workers 18 to 65 as a single monolithic population. And one of the things that I’m hoping my book will do, while building on the research of so many others, is to shine a light on that period of young adulthood as a really important developmental period, so their stories can be heard.

TCR: How is the justice system failing young adults, and how does putting youths in jail or prison vs. a rehabilitative program further separate them from their peer groups?

Kim: Incarceration, generally, is absolutely catastrophic for a young person. We have to also look at the comparison between incarceration and diversion for a young person, versus an upper-middle-class child. They’re in the same age group, but one is focusing heavily on going to college, getting their first internship, getting that first job, and they are so much further ahead than someone who’s hopes are completely fasted by being put into an institutionalized setting.

If you’re a young person who is incarcerated, the odds are you will have zero access to educational job training opportunities. The Justice Policy Institute has a report out that finds only about 7 percent of facilities have educational job training available for young adults who are incarcerated. And, they’re much more likely to be assaulted as a young person in prison too.

When young people are inside a facility, the likelihood of re-offending, not surprisingly, is incredibly high. Moreover,  [Columbus School of Law Professor] Cara Drinan, whose research I relied on in the book, finds that about 10,000 kids under 18 are in adult prisons on any given day. And over the course of a year, 100,000 are going to spend some time in adult facilities in places like New York, so young adults make up a disproportionate share of the jail population.

Anne Kim

Anne Kim

These figures are from the book. Eight percent of New York City’s population is 18 to 24, but 22 percent of the city’s jail population is aged 18 to 24. The criminal justice system is having a disproportionate effect on young people and a disproportionate amount of damage is being done to these young people in return.

TCR: In your book you write about a New York City program called CASES. Why are programs like this important?

Kim: That gets back to your question about the difference between incarceration versus diversion away from criminal behavior, and that’s what CASES does. CASES is a nonprofit that works with the court system to divert many young, first-time offenders away from the court system and into more, meaningful opportunities to give them a second chance, including education.

We’ve done a great job, as a nation, in putting fewer young people into detention centers, and the numbers have gotten much better. However, there aren’t enough programs like CASES in other parts of the country. CASES is unique because it’s in New York City, and it’s relatively well funded compared to other programs that are not as large or as established, but it’s a model for what can be done.

TCR: With the election season in full swing, people are more acutely aware of  problems in the justice system. How can politicians help put the spotlight on these issues?

Kim: Well, you would think that with so much emphasis on the importance of the youth vote that the presidential candidates would be more concerned about the economic opportunities available to young people, to all young people. And so, it’s actually baffling to me that this problem of disconnection among the voters that the candidates care so much about, hasn’t gotten any attention at all. Young people who are disconnected from school and work also don’t vote. It’s going to be up to the candidates to think about who is being left out of the conversation, and to reach out to them.

There’s a huge amount of untapped potential there that they are overlooking if they don’t address the young people who are being left out of the national conversation right now, and come up with strategies that will uplift these young people.

TCR: At the end of your book, you list “The Seven Steps for Ending Disconnection.” How did you arrive at those seven? 

 Kim: Many researchers have written about this problem in the past, including many nonprofits who have been working for the past couple of decades tirelessly to help these young people. This has been kind of an under-the-radar but bubbling issue for a while and my job as a journalist, in a lot of ways, is to synthesize what’s out there and bring this particular topic into hopefully mainstream conversation about economic opportunity inequality.

The seven steps that I outlined are what I think are the most practical, the most bipartisan, and the lowest hanging fruit. I’m not asking to change the world with this; it’s fairly practical stuff.

The steps are important because it’s really tragic that the federal government can’t give us—and the Census Bureau cannot give us—up to date [data] how many young people are in this situation. Nonprofit organizations like Measure of America, whose research I rely on in the book, are the ones who are doing the work and putting those numbers out there. That shouldn’t be the case.

Young people themselves in this position are not listened to either. One thing I discovered in the course of the research and talking to young people is that there’s so much aspiration, so much willingness to work, and so much energy, but it’s being sorted by the barriers that are surrounding them.

coverThese steps are important because there’s a lot of mythology about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. Well, that’s actually not true, particularly in a much more complex economy that we live in. You really can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you’re not in the right place at the right time.

Knowing the right people and having the right supports, they just become more and more true is one of the ironies of living in a world that’s ostensibly more connected.

TCR: On the last page of your book, you say that “by ignoring young people, we are robbing our nation of its potential.”  What did you mean?

Kim: Every young person has potential. They have hopes, dreams, ambitions, intelligence, hard work, and drive. It’s a cliché to say the young people are the nation’s future, but it’s absolutely true. You don’t know what potential contributions someone can make to society. That weight is enormous, and every young person whose potential you don’t discover, whose potential you dismiss without exploration, [represents] a potential that is sabotaged!

When you add up the 4.5 million people whose potential is overlooked—we’re talking about trillions of dollars in economic growth, innovations that are happening, creativity, bringing power, productivity, hard work—we’re throwing all that away.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Kim’s “Seven Steps for Ending Disconnection” are:

        • Ensure Every Young Person Counts
        • Invest More—A Lot More—in Programs That Work
        • Encourage More Businesses to Step Up
        • Bring Opportunity Everywhere
        • Link Schools to Jobs and Careers
        • Break the Pipeline to Disconnection from the Foster Care and Justice Systems
        • Listen to Young People

Andrea Cipriano is a staff writer for The Crime Report.

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