Data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that in 2016 over four million young people in the United States were “disconnected,” meaning they had not been enrolled in school in the previous three months and were not working. Although this number has fallen in the years since the Great Recession (which officially ended in 2009), as the economy has improved and unemployment rates have declined, roughly 1 in 10 young people ages 16 to 24 remained disconnected in 2016. These young people face an uphill battle finding work, since they are not engaged in activities that help them build skills or gain work experience.
Many youth employment programs attempt to help these young people reconnect with education and work, and over the years some of the biggest have been subject to rigorous evaluations. Overall the results have been mixed, and even when the programs do show positive effects on work and earnings, those effects have generally been modest.
The evidence base has grown substantially in the past few months as studies of three such programs — YouthBuild, Year Up, and New York City’s Young Adult Internship Program (YAIP) — have released new findings. The new findings are exciting because the programs involved used a variety of strategies, but also because one of the programs, Year Up, had large, positive effects on young people’s earnings. This type of finding is rare for employment programs in general, and especially rare for programs serving disadvantaged young people.
This brief discusses the findings from the three new studies and their implications for youth programs. It argues that no one program is the answer for disconnected young people, but that each program serves a particular segment of the population, and each can serve as a step toward upward mobility. What’s missing is the system to help young people navigate these programs and move up.