Disconnected Youth: What's The Big Deal?


There are currently around 270,000 youth between the ages of 16 and 24 across Hampton Roads. These are youth in transition to adult independence and the workforce. Most of us know or have known youth who seemed incredibly mature at 16 or 17. We also probably know youth who seem stuck in adolescence at 24 or 25. The truth is that this is probably perfectly normal. Science tells us that the adult brain (the part of the brain capable of self-control, long-term planning, deferred gratification, effective decision-making, emotional regulation, and self-awareness) does not fully develop until the mid to late twenties.

In very practical terms, this means is that about 30% of that population of over a quarter of a million youth will transition to adult independence and the workforce effectively through the traditional pathways of high school graduation, college and entry into the workforce. With strong family and financial support, these youth will become the 21st century workforce in Hampton Roads. Another 40% will also make that transition with some competence, though most families and many youth will admit to wishing they had better information and a more effective preparation for adult life. But around 17% of this population (around 45,900 youth) will struggle profoundly and 13% (around 35,100) won’t make it at all. They will become what we have come to call our "disconnected youth population." 

That's nearly 46,000 youth at risk of disconnection and over 35,000 youth already disconnected or at high risk of disconnection. They will end up homeless, unemployed, and possibly even incarcerated. But even if they avoid incarceration and are marginally employed and tentatively sheltered they are not likely to be the kind or quality of workforce we need in Hampton Roads to be competitive in the 21st century. It doesn’t matter whether we claim these youth as our own or reject them as being someone else’s problem. The fate of these disconnected youth will impact everyone living in Hampton Roads in the years ahead.

A recent report from the Social Science Research Council titled "Zeroing In On Place and Race: Youth Disconnection in America's Cities," ranks Hampton Roads as 45th out of 98 metropolitan areas studied for disconnected youth as a percentage of overall youth population. While disconnection is a phenomenon that impacts more white youth overall, it disproportionately impacts black youth. In Hampton Roads 10.3% of white youth and 19.4% of black youth are disconnected. 


Disconnection among youth is a significant challenge facing Hampton Roads. It’s a social services issue. It’s a taxpayer issue, It’s a criminal justice issue. It’s a workforce development and regional economic issue. It’s a human rights issue and a moral issue. As the baby boomer generation matures, can we really afford to not to pay attention to how the generation that will be supporting this aging class, is coming of age itself?

This is also an issue that is getting worse. Unemployment among young people is twice the rate of that of adults. Teens who used to learn about work and the workforce with summer service jobs and part time employment are no longer able to find those jobs when they are competing against older out-of-work Americans. What will we do with a significant portion of a generation of youth that is coming of age without exposure to the world of work?

What are the costs of disconnection? The human costs for  3 or more years of disconnection are quite profound and include a lower lifetime earning potential, chronic difficulty getting and keeping a job, chronic homelessness, becoming single parents and living in extreme poverty, lack of health insurance and erratic healthcare that strains the medical system, substance abuse, and chronic depression.

But there is also a very real financial cost. Each disconnected youth imposes an immediate taxpayer burden of $13,900 per year and an immediate social burden of $37,450 per year.

Taxpayer burden is everything that taxpayers will pay for in terms of services (lost tax revenue, criminal and corrections costs, healthcare and social welfare costs). Social burden is all other relevant costs (lost wages and productivity, higher health care and insurance costs, crime costs, marginal excess tax burden, etc.)*

A disconnected youth who reaches age 25 without effective intervention will impose a future lifetime taxpayer burden of $170,740 and a lifetime social burden of $529,030. Multiply that times the number of youth at-risk of disconnection in Hampton Roads and you have a six and a half billion dollar lifetime taxpayer burden and a twenty billion dollar lifetime social burden.

It’s very clear that doing nothing about disconnection just isn’t smart!


We know a surprising amount about what causes disconnection—what the risk factors are. A young person is at increasing risk of disconnection for every one of these factors:

  • In or exiting from foster care.

  • Not in school and lacking a high school diploma.

  • Not working or connected to the legitimate labor market.

  • Either homeless or with no fixed address.

  • If they are still in school, they are performing below grade level.

  • Living in high poverty families often headed by a single parent, possibly experiencing frequent family homelessness.

  • Alienated from families due to physical, sexual, or emotional abuse in the home.

  • Rejected by families because of sexual orientation.

  • Struggling to raise a child of their own.

  • Involvement with or at risk of sanction by the juvenile or adult criminal justice system.

  • Struggling with substance abuse.