Field Notes: Investing in Disconnected Young People

Field Notes is a series of TIP Strategies interviews with leaders across the country exploring pressing economic, workforce, and community development issues.

As communities determine ways to rebuild their economies in more equitable and inclusive ways, economic and workforce development practitioners will need to serve groups that have been overlooked. Disconnected young people, often referred to as opportunity youth, are the future of our economies and our workforce. Opportunity youth hold great potential for our communities but require intentional and additional support from community leaders to become reengaged and reconnected to economic opportunities. We spoke to Anna Crockett, Community Development Analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, to better understand the challenges facing opportunity youth, their importance to our communities, and potential investment strategies for community leaders. Anna co-authored a report titled “Opportunity Youth in Texas: Identifying and Reengaging the State’s Disconnected Young People” for the Dallas Fed in 2019.

Q1.  Who are opportunity youth? What’s the estimated opportunity youth population nationally and in Texas?

Opportunity youth are young people aged 16-24 who are neither in school nor working. The Dallas Fed’s 2019 report on opportunity youth found that, in 2017, there were 4.5 million of these young people nationwide, and half a million of them lived in Texas. Unfortunately, we don’t have data on the current number of opportunity youth, but it has likely increased with the onset of the COVID-19-induced recession. Measure of America, national experts on this topic, predicts that the number of opportunity youth in the United States could easily reach six million this year.

Q2.  From an economic standpoint, why is it important for communities to invest in opportunity youth?

We call this group of young people “opportunity youth” to emphasize their potential economic and social contributions. While it takes time and other resources to reconnect these young people to school and work, without such interventions the cost of opportunity youth often falls on the public in the forms of governmental assistance programs and incarceration expenditures. On the other hand, when opportunity youth go back to school or get jobs, they increase their lifetime earnings and can break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. From a racial equity standpoint, it is even more important to invest in opportunity youth, who are more likely to be Native American, Black, and Latinx. Throughout U.S. history, these groups have faced barriers to education and employment that continue to have ramifications today. The effects are evident in lower average incomes and wealth as well as higher unemployment rates. Issues such as poor educational opportunities, the high cost of college, and the disproportionate impact of the criminal justice system all contribute to disconnection.

Q3.  How has the COVID-19 pandemic increased the urgency to invest in opportunity youth?

It has never been more urgent to invest in opportunity youth. The lack of in-person schooling, while necessary for public health reasons, has already led to disconnection from both high school and post-secondary education. The digital divide in Texas and across the nation is a significant driver of that disconnection. When it comes to employment, some of the hardest hit industries during the pandemic have been hospitality and leisure, which employ a significant number of young people. Again, while public health measures are critical to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the long-lasting nature of these restrictions will likely contribute to long-term unemployment or underemployment for young people who have lost their jobs in the service sector.

Q4.  What are some challenges that opportunity youth face? Are there differences for those in urban versus rural communities?

The challenges that opportunity youth face are widespread. As part of our 2019 report, we conducted three focus groups with former opportunity youth who have since been reconnected, and each had a unique story. When it came to education, many dropped out of high school or college either because they had to work or had caretaking responsibilities. Others simply didn’t think school would prepare them for the future. In the workforce, barriers ranged from the lack of transportation and social networks to criminal background checks and issues with immigration status. I’m glad you asked about rural and urban differences. Rural areas generally see higher rates of youth disconnection than urban and especially suburban areas. One reason for that, it seems, is the lack of economic opportunities in rural areas as automation contributes to job loss and the outsourcing of ownership of rural companies leads to less investment locally. As far as the challenges that opportunity youth face, there isn’t much difference between urban and rural communities. Both communities suffer from transportation issues, for example. The main difference lies in the reasons behind the lack of economic opportunities and the disproportionate impact this has on rural communities.

Q5.  What are strategies that economic and workforce development organizations can apply to support opportunity youth?

We list seven common reconnection strategies in our opportunity youth report, and I think many can be summarized to “meet opportunity youth where they are.” This can be in the physical sense, by offering reconnection services in a high-unemployment area and that is easily accessible by public transportation. This can also apply in the figurative sense, such as practicing cultural competency or offering mental health services (another issue this pandemic is likely to exacerbate). Another strategy I want to highlight for economic and workforce development organizations is the formation of cross-sector partnerships. These partnerships can include local government, nonprofits, school districts, higher education institutions, philanthropic organizations, and private companies. Especially during the pandemic, cross-sector partnerships can create a wider net that is more likely to capture opportunity youth and offer a combination of services that might help them reconnect to school or work. Last but not least, our partners at Educate Texas just released a practitioners’ toolkit with guidance on how to build, assess, and evolve reengagement programming for opportunity youth. I recommend it to anyone looking to start or continue a reengagement program.

Q6.  What are additional resources for readers to learn more about opportunity youth?

Luckily, there are many national organizations to learn from when it comes to opportunity youth research and strategies for reengagement. Aside from Measure of America, which I already mentioned, I’d look at the Aspen Institute’s Opportunity Youth Forum, Jobs for the Future, the National League of Cities, Year Up, 100,000 Opportunities, consulting firm FSG, Equal Measure, and the International Youth Foundation.

Headshot of Anna Crockett

Anna is a Community Development Analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Houston Branch. Since joining the Dallas Fed in 2018, Anna has conducted research and spoken publicly on a variety of topics, including small businesses, consumer credit, and reengaging young people in the workforce. She has a master’s degree from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. For more information about opportunity youth or the Dallas Fed’s work, contact Anna at or through LinkedIn.

The views expressed here are the interviewee’s own and should not be attributed to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas or the Federal Reserve System. The information provided does not constitute an endorsement of any organization or program.
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