NEW YORK—Efrain Hernandez grew up with a single mother. Facing financial difficulties, he sold fake raffle tickets at the age of 10, and then moved on to selling drugs.
Hernandez dropped out of school at the age of 15. It was at this point that he was considered part of the disconnected youth: those who are neither in school nor working.
Hernandez was not reconnected until two years ago, upon his return from prison, when he became engaged in Reconnect, a youth entrepreneurship program. He is still with Reconnect today, and still attends classes.
Hernandez’s story is unique, but his situation is not. There are 165,000 disconnected youth in New York City, and 350,000 in the New York metro area.
One in seven young people in the United States are disconnected, according to a 2012 report by the nonprofit Measure of America (MOA). The report surveyed 25 major metro areas to measure youth disconnection. New York had the ninth highest youth disconnection rate, at 15.2 percent, which is 0.8 percent above the national average.
Notably, the New York metro area has the second highest disconnection rate for Latino youth, at 20.6 percent, behind only Phoenix.
“One thing that our study showed clearly is that we are not doing as well in New York as we are in many other big cities in the United States,” said Sarah Burd-Sharps, co-director of MOA. “So clearly the percentage being reached is not adequate to tackle a really serious problem.”
New York also has the widest gap between the best- and worst-performing neighborhoods in terms of youth disconnection. For example, the youth disconnection rate is 10 times higher in the South Bronx neighborhoods of Mott Haven, Melrose, and Hunts Point than those in the Hicksville, Bethpage, and Plainview neighborhoods in Long Island.
Young people who are not anchored to a job or a school can be scarred for life, Burd-Sharps said. Employment gaps in the résumé, as well as lack of work experience and education, have a negative effect on lifetime earnings and threaten financial independence. Even factors like physical and mental health and the prospect of getting married are impacted.
The cost to the individual is great, but the neighborhood and the country suffer as well. Disconnected youth are more likely to be dependent on public assistance, commit a crime, and be incarcerated, all of which come at a significant cost to the public.
“It’s very costly to people, to their neighborhoods, and also to the country as a whole,” said Lewis.
In the long run, future generations are affected as well: children of parents who did not graduate from high school are less likely to graduate as well. Parents who are not employed are also less effective in helping their children enter the labor market.
Only a small fraction of New York City’s disconnected youth is engaged through city services. The city currently reaches a mere 2.6 percent of the total disconnected population.
The major issue is funding.
The city’s Department of Youth and Community Development is funded to serve 2,675 disconnected youth through two of its programs in 2013. The city’s Department of Small Business Services placed more than 500 people aged 18–24 in employment through its Workforce1 career centers in 2012.
Given more funding, more people could be served. But reconnecting disconnected youth does not solve the problem at the root. It is also much more expensive than preventive measures.
“Programs that directly address disconnected youth—kids who have already fallen out of the mainstream today—are not the best approach,” said Kristen Lewis, co-director of MOA.
It is much cheaper and easier to prevent disconnection than to reconnect youth that is already disconnected, MOA’s report concluded. Lewis said that two approaches in particular have proven to be effective.
First, a quality preschool education is the most sound investment and results in lower dropout and higher employment rates.
Second, the prevailing idea that a four-year college degree is a one-size-fits-all solution for youth entering the mainstream is flawed. Countries like Germany, Norway, and Finland, which have significantly lower disconnection rates, offer vocational training and occupational apprenticeship as alternative routes for high school students.
Aiming for prevention still leaves more than 150,000 disconnected youth in limbo. Hernandez was fortunate when he joined the Reconnect programtwo years ago. He was the first member.
Reconnect was started by Jim O’Shea, a local who has helped youth in the neighborhood for more than a decade. O’Shea helped Hernandez for 13 years, but his efforts did not end up connecting him back to school or work.
Two of Hernandez’s friends were killed while he was in prison. When he returned to O’Shea in 2010, they started thinking of ways to fundamentally solve his issues. They came up with an entrepreneurship project. The idea was to engage youth by offering them an opportunity to work for start-up businesses.
The idea worked for Hernandez and for those who joined later.
“I’ve been here for three years and I’ve been doing 100% positive,” Hernandez said. “Just trying to save the world and give back to the neighborhood.”
Young people working for Reconnect are given stipends. They sell fresh fruit in the neighborhood during warm months, as well as Christmas trees and gift baskets during the holiday season.
Today Reconnect is working on opening a cafe in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. It is already running a bakery several times a week in Queens. The cafe is slated to open in about a month.
“It has been two years and a month,” said Lavell Dais, 19. “[Reconnect] has me making the right decisions, the right choices, keep me out of trouble, making my future brighter. It’s a good feeling, I could come here anytime and talk about my problems.”
A Drop in the Ocean
Reconnect helps 14 young people, a drop in the ocean when looking at the entire disconnected population. Part of the problem is its complexity: the numerous paths to disconnection and different people need different types of support.
“The lines can be very, very thin,” said Khary Lazarre-White, executive director and co-founder of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, a local youth services organization. “We have young people that would not have normally been at risk, but now they drop out of school and they’re at risk. They’re connected because they’re in high school and then they graduate and can’t find a job for two years, and now they’re disconnected. We have young people who have gone off to community college, have not been able to pay the bill, and now they’re disconnected with no place to live.”
Furthermore, like any social phenomenon, youth disconnection is closely connected to broader social issues.
“Poverty maps very closely on youth disconnection. Disconnected kids are three times as likely to come from a poor neighborhood than from a low poverty neighborhood,” said Lewis.
Educate versus Incarcerate
Some of the youth that do connect with the services created to bring them back to school or into the workforce end up doing so through unfavorable circumstances.
“Often what happens is that these kids are eventually reached by getting into the criminal justice system,” Lewis said.
The cost to incarcerate a person is several times more than investing in education or in disconnection services.
For example, California spends $47,000 a year per prisoner, while its Head Start educational program costs an average $7,600 per child, according to its legislative analyst’s office.
In his annual State of the State address, Oregon Gov. John A. Kitzhaber said, “It costs $10,000 a year to keep a child in school but $30,000 a year to keep someone in prison.”
With approximately $24 million projected spending for 2013, New York City will spend $5,619 per disconnected youth. New York also spends the most in the nation to keep a person in prison—$60,076—according to the “Price of Prisons” report released by the Institute of Justice.
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