Improving the Economic and Life Outcomes of At-Risk Youth
This paper outlines ideas and strategies to engage alienated and disaffected young people in activities designed to help them acquire skills, gain work experience, and improve their lives. An ambitious goal motivates this work: to significantly increase the proportion of young people who by the age of 25 have a high school diploma or postsecondary credential, are working in jobs with career mobility opportunities, are involved in a stable relationship with another adult, and are not involved in risk-taking behavior. The paper is based on lessons from three decades of demonstrations and evaluations that have focused on at-risk youth. It presents ideas that government agencies and foundations may want to test through demonstrations a imed at filling important service and knowledge gaps. It also presents ideas about how to change the public discourse about young people at risk and to strengthen the public will to capitalize on this population’s strengths and potential. We recommend three program strategies all of which leverage youth-serving institutions and existing funding streams and lay the groundwork for expanding programs whose effectiveness has met high evaluation standards.
The underlying premise of the proposed strategy is that the mixed results from studies of existing youth programs can be explained largely by the underenrollment of key subgroups of young people, inconsistent participation among enrollees, and high rates of attrition. Many of the young people who could benefit most from program services do not enroll at all, and a large proportion of those served do not participate long enough to earn education credentials, improve their work readiness and life management skills, and acquire the technical skills needed to compete effectively in the job market. Therefore, a fundamental premise of this paper is how to increase youth engagement as a prerequisite to success. In crafting our recommendations, we draw on existing research, the experience of youth programs that have had unusual success in attracting and retaining enrollees, and insights from a “youth development” perspective and youth program practitioners and young people themselves.