Youth, Disconnected: Coronavirus Shutdown Leaves Some Behind

By: - May 1, 2020 12:00 am

Jonathan Beaudry works toward his high school equivalency diploma in a Columbia, Missouri, construction training program. Social distancing measures make it nearly impossible for youth like Beaudry to pursue similar training and educational opportunities. Jordan Kodner/The Columbia Missourian via AP

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After two weeks of “mental toughness” training, 20 teenagers and young adults in a YouthBuild daily program in Enid, Oklahoma, were on the cusp of turning their lives around.

Out of school and out of work, they proved to organizers that they could be punctual, follow instructions and work hard. As a result, the youths were invited to the next phase of the program: working toward earning their high school diplomas and helping with local construction projects.

“They were super excited to have been chosen,” said Rachel Harris, program coordinator. Then the coronavirus hit, and the program closed its doors. “It was just a few days later that we had to break the news to them and send them home.” 

Jiliane Ford, 19, took it hard. “I really liked getting to go back to school and then it was just ripped away.”

Disconnected youth like Ford hunger for attention. Stay-at-home orders have set them adrift.

In-person contact is integral to many of the workforce training and alternative education programs available to them. And because many participants don’t have laptops or reliable broadband access, remote learning isn’t a viable option.

“For youth that are connected to some sort of program, whether it’s work to get a GED or to develop a certain set of skills, all of that is happening online now,” said Mara Tieken, associate professor of education at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. “And if you can’t access broadband, that means that you’re cut off.” 

Across the country, an estimated 4.5 million youth ages 16-24 are considered disconnected — not going to school or working, according to an April 2019 report from Measure of America, a project of the Social Science Research Council, a research nonprofit based in Brooklyn. And as policymakers take steps to help Americans recover from the economic and social ramifications of the pandemic, advocates say those young people are in danger of being further left behind. 

The rate of disconnected youth declined from 14.7% in 2010 to 11.5% in 2017, thanks to a growing economy and successful high school retention efforts. But the youth disconnection rate tends to track closely with the national unemployment rate, which J.P. Morgan predicts will skyrocket to around 15%. Some economists expect the rate to eventually exceed a Great Depression-like 25%. 

The challenges are most severe for rural, black and Native American populations, who are over-represented in the disconnected population. Before the pandemic, nearly a quarter of Native American youth were disconnected. The rate among African Americans was 18%.

The rates were lower among Hispanics (13.2%), whites (9.4%) and Asian Americans (6.6%), according to Measure of America.

“When the economy reopens, it will not necessarily be reopening for these young people,” said Kisha Bird, director of youth policy for the nonpartisan Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, D.C., a think tank focused on low-income people.

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April Simpson

April Simpson reports on rural issues at Stateline. Before joining Pew, Simpson was associate editor of Current, where she covered public broadcasting and nonprofit media.