By Christopher Moraff
Special to the NNPA from The Philadelphia Tribune
Take a walk through a low-income minority neighborhood in the City of Philadelphia on any given weekday and you’re sure to notice the unusually large number of young people sitting on stoops, hanging out in front of the pizza shop, playing ball in the school yard or simply riding their bikes from one end of the block to the other.
Engage a few of them in conversation and you’ll find that for the most part these are bright and ambitious young people, and almost all of them have big plans for the future. Sadly, for many of them those plans will never come to fruition.
Some will eventually find their way into low-paying jobs with little opportunity for advancement. Others will get caught up in the criminal justice system and spend years transitioning in and out jail. A few will buck the odds and move on to careers in college followed by good paying jobs.
It’s hard to tell from talking to them who among them will make it and who won’t; but the data is crystal clear on one thing: The more time they spend on the block after leaving high school the less likely they are to ever leave it.
Thanks to structural inequality, residential segregation, the increasing globalization of industry, and most acutely, extended fallout from the Great Recession, increasing numbers of American young people are joining the ranks of the “disconnected” – an invisible army trapped in the no man’s land between adolescence and adulthood – who face fewer options than ever for getting out.
According to a new report from the group Measure of America, one in every seven Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 — 5.8 million young people in all — are neither working nor in school. And no community has been hit harder than African Americans.
Nationwide, African Americans are twice as likely as whites to be disconnected in their teens and early twenties. In major urban areas, the racial distinction is even more stark. In the worst-hit cities in America, one-in-five African American young people is disconnected, the highest rate of any ethnic group.
Here in Philadelphia, more than a quarter of Black youths fall into this category, compared to just 8.9 percent of whites, a racial gap of 16.3 percentage points. In the poorest areas of West Kensington and Southwest Philadelphia, nearly one out of every three youths are in a state of virtual idleness, a predicament that not only fuels increased rates of crime, but virtually shuts the door on income mobility among the poorest communities.
One-in-10 male high school dropouts between the ages of 16 and 24 is behind bars, according to Measure of America, a figure that jumps to nearly one-in-four for African Americans.
A legacy of racism
According to Sarah Burd-Sharps, Measure of America’s co-director and an author of the report “Halve the Gap,” while there are at least a half-dozen variables that contribute to youth disconnection, much of the problem is rooted in a legacy of structural racism and segregation.
“In cities where there is a high degree of racial segregation by neighborhood, we see some of the worst rates of youth disconnection,” she said. “So it’s about communities that are largely African American that are excluded in every way, from a lack of adequate transportation and health care, to schools that are basically dropout factories. It’s about exclusion on every level.”
Philadelphia is one of the most racially segregated cities in America – ranking higher than Birmingham, Ala., Memphis, Tenn. and Atlanta, Ga., according to an analysis of 2010 Census data. The city is ranked sixth out of 25 major metropolitan areas for white-Black racial segregation and seventh for isolation. When scored by income, the Philadelphia metro area is the fifth most segregated of the 10 largest U.S. cities, according to a 2012 report from the Pew Research Center.
Thanks to this kind of rigid social immobility, even in 2013 a child’s future status remains intricately tied to that of his or her parents.
“Our tolerance for social and economic mobility is based on the idea that equal opportunity will mean that disadvantaged adults will not have disadvantaged children; however, the characteristics of most disconnected youth belie that,” said Ronald Mincy, a professor of social work at Columbia University and director of the Center for Research on Fathers, Children, and Family Well-Being.
Poor kids start out with little social capital, and are less likely to acquire it in low-performing schools. But a large part of the problem of youth disconnection can also be attributed to the changing structure of the workforce which, unlike decades past, offers few opportunities for fruitful blue-collar employment.
“The structure of our labor force has changed drastically,” said Burd-Sharps. “Someone who just has a high school diploma in today’s knowledge economy can’t have the same income stability that they once did, so secondary education is critical. There’s a lack of opportunity, which is a big part of it, and certainly Philadelphia has been hit hard and in very disproportionate ways.”
By 2018 it’s projected that nearly two-thirds of job openings will require some post-secondary education, and the largest jobs growth will be in fields that require at least an associate’s degree. Only about a quarter of students from Philadelphia’s “neighborhood schools” — which include public high schools servicing some of the city’s poorest areas — make it to college within six years of graduation, data shows.
“The sad fact is that a 16-year-old dropping out of high school and wanting to work has no options,” said David Dodson, president of MDC Inc., a prominent community development group headquartered in Durham, N.C. “A knowledge economy rewards education and we are turning out young people who are not contributing to their future or ours.”
Dignified and enriching options
Still, experts say reversing the tide of youth disconnection is about more than just getting kids into college. Burd-Sharps says schools need to incorporate “more dignified and enriching options” that target at-risk kids with programs focused on skills development preferably in collaboration with the private sector.
“A lot of guidance counselors really just offer one option, go on to a four-year college,” she said. “But that’s not always the best option, and everything else is sort of painted as second best.”
The City of Philadelphia has been making strides in improving the outcomes for youths at risk of disconnection.
Shortly after becoming mayor in 2008, Michael Nutter formed the Philadelphia Council for College and Career Success, with the goal of developing citywide partnerships, strategies and infrastructures to support youth attainment of 21st century skills and post-secondary education. Two of the Council’s three primary programs are managed by the Philadelphia Youth Network, which works with industry to provide alternative education focused on career development.
“Industry-specific jobs that could previously employ someone without a high school diploma are largely gone,” said Chekemma Fulmore-Townsend, PYN’s acting president and CEO. “This has put pressure on school districts and workforce systems to increase vigor and revisit alignment with industry requirements.”
One of PYN’s programs, WorkReady Philadelphia, offers year-round and summer programs that provide adolescents with real-world career exposure and opportunities to enhance their understanding and mastery of skills needed to become active and productive citizens.
During 2011-2012 the program — which relies on funding from the public and private sectors — worked with nearly 500 employers to provide workplace experience and training to more than 8,400 Philadelphia youth, 78 percent of them African American.