How Cities are Changing Their Thinking on Disconnected Youth

By Elizabeth Reynoso • October 11, 2015

This post originally appeared on

In late September, nearly 40 mayoral chiefs of staff and policy advisers from around the country gathered at Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for the 14th Convening of the Project on Municipal Innovation Advisory Group (PMI-AG), the theme of which was "Fighting Inequality: Leveraging Opportunities for Innovation." A session on youth sparked some fascinating conversations about the new ways cities are thinking about how to better serve young people who are disconnected from work and school.

Over the summer, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel kicked off an initiative led by Starbucks and a coalition of other employers committed to training and hiring 100,000 young people throughout the country by 2018. “[Youth disconnection] is not a challenge that the public sector can solve alone. Nor is it a challenge that private or community partners can solve alone,” said Mayor Emanuel. The announcement of this private sector-led initiative marks a pivotal moment for cities who have been partnering with academic institutions, workforce developers, and philanthropies for years to coordinate something more sustainable than a limited set of youth programs to connect teenagers and young adults to post-secondary education and employment.

According to a Measure of America report issued this past June, more than 5.5 million young people or 1 in 7 youth in America are considered “disconnected,” meaning they are not in school or not working. In 2012, the White House Council for Community Solutions released a report first coining the term, “opportunity youth” to bring attention to the potential rather than the deficit these youth represent. In late September, these youth were top-of-mind for nearly 40 mayoral chiefs of staff and policy advisers from around the country who gathered at Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center in Cambridge, MA for the 14th convening of the Project on Municipal Innovation (PMI). These convenings provide an environment for city leaders to share challenges and learn about solutions from their peers and national experts that promise to increase their city hall’s operational effectiveness and the quality of life for their residents. This year, two national experts on youth shared ideas and challenged cities to create transformative youth-supporting systems in keeping with this year’s theme: Fighting Inequality: Leveraging Opportunities for Innovation.

Bob Giloth of the Annie E. Casey Foundation observed that, although we are seeing positive trends in teen pregnancy, school dropout, juvenile arrest and child welfare rates, unemployment for youth of color has gone through the roof: “The intersection of race and unemployment is particularly important for cities like Baltimore, so cities need to employ a racial equity lens in strategies and practice.” By better understanding the role their programs and policies play in creating disparities for these youth, governments can dramatically improve outcomes. He added, “We need better ways for defining and measuring success. We know a lot about school success, but we rely upon adult measures for labor market success of young people.” Measures like “retention” don’t take into account the multiple short-term jobs and work-like experiences that youth tend to have.

Others at PMI were interested in the question of how to create a funding backbone for youth initiatives. Kisha Bird from CLASP encouraged cities to leverage the Affordable Care Act to support mental health services for youth and young adults to better integrate education, training and workforce systems and how youth access them. Citing examples in Indianapolis’ Excel Centers and Seattle’s United Way, Giloth said these models extend the per pupil state school dollars for school/technical education for youth in their early to mid-20s.

Both Bird and Giloth stressed that, more often than not, disconnected youth live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, meaning that place-based approaches are necessary. Giloth raised models for going beyond locating services in neighborhoods and thinking about ways cities can use technology to bring the voices of youth to the table. Bird added that, in addition to being youth-informed, place-based approaches need to be data-driven, too. For example, youth employment opportunities should be linked to high-growth industries specific to a city’s economic development plans as Louisville’s sector strategy exemplifies.

"We need better ways for defining and measuring success," Giloth said.

Even though mayors have been struggling to make up for the loss of federal summer youth program dollars since the 1998 reform of the Workforce Investment Act, Giloth argued that cities should use their summer jobs programs more strategically, “We can use summer jobs as a platform to reinforce or launch career pathways that connect school and work…make it year round apprentice-like opportunities in key industries.” With the Opportunity Youth movement, the President’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, new social innovation fund awards, and other initiatives, the moment is now as Bird said, “to move beyond just programs like summer youth employment- although these are important work experience strategies.”

PMI attendees agreed they need to better align cross-sector investments for opportunity youth, especially since many of these youth are raising young children themselves expanding poverty to two generations. Although the level of funding provided by the Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act (WIOA) isn’t huge, it offers officials a viable framework to use for partnering broadly with employers, academic institutions, and intermediaries who prepare youth for employment – key to scaling transformative solutions. Bird acknowledged, “Because it takes resources to connect comprehensive systems for youth, WIOA presents an organizing framework around how to create a local system for serving youth that brings together stakeholders across agencies and sectors to design, develop, and implement policies and strategies for this youth population.”

With city officials from Louisville and Los Angeles also sharing their successful city-wide youth strategies on the panel, it is clear that cities are ground zero for the creation of innovative solutions that dramatically improve outcomes for youth transitioning into an economically secure adulthood. Living Cities will continue to work with them to sustain the momentum necessary for thriving future generations.