Who Are Opportunity Youth?

Updated January 30, 2024 | Posted January 5, 2024
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
A group of youth walking away from the viewer; they are on a paved surface in the sunlight

The KIDS COUNT® Data Cen­ter, which tracks trends among youth ages 16 to 19, indi­cates that 7% of the nation’s old­er teens — more than 1.1 mil­lion young peo­ple — are nei­ther work­ing or in school, accord­ing to the lat­est data from 2022. While these teens are some­times called dis­con­nect­ed youth,” the term oppor­tu­ni­ty youth” is increas­ing­ly pre­ferred, as this phrase is more pos­i­tive and reflects the poten­tial of these young peo­ple to become thriv­ing adults if pro­vid­ed the right opportunities.

Oppor­tu­ni­ty youth often come from com­mu­ni­ties with high­er lev­els of pover­ty or lim­it­ed resources. Many of these young peo­ple have dis­abil­i­ties, expe­ri­ence with home­less­ness or have crossed paths with the child wel­fare or juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems. Youth of col­or are also dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly rep­re­sent­ed in this group.

Why Focus on Oppor­tu­ni­ty Youth?

When com­pared to peers who are in school or work­ing, oppor­tu­ni­ty youth are more like­ly to expe­ri­ence a range of chal­lenges in adult­hood, such as employ­ment dif­fi­cul­ties, low incomes and poor phys­i­cal and men­tal health. Con­verse­ly, youth with edu­ca­tion and employ­ment expe­ri­ence gain con­nec­tions to good jobs, earn­ings, health care and oth­er resources. Sta­ble, car­ing rela­tion­ships with adults are also key to help­ing young peo­ple nav­i­gate the hur­dles of school, work, finances and life as they tran­si­tion to adulthood.

Track­ing trends relat­ed to oppor­tu­ni­ty youth pro­vides infor­ma­tion on how the nation is far­ing and which loca­tions across the coun­try are pro­vid­ing equi­table access to edu­ca­tion and employ­ment opportunities.

What Are the Major Trends With Oppor­tu­ni­ty Youth?

The share of U.S. teens who are not work­ing or in school has remained fair­ly steady, around 7%, over the last decade. How­ev­er, this still means that more than one mil­lion teenagers remain detached from school and work and need sup­port in order to re-engage in these settings.

At the same time, the share of teens ages 16 to 19 who are not work­ing has declined by near­ly 10 per­cent­age points over the last decade, from 73% in 2012 to 64% in 2022. This change sug­gests that youth are increas­ing­ly more like­ly to be engaged in the work­force, which posi­tions them to acquire the jobs skills and expe­ri­ences need­ed to suc­cess­ful­ly tran­si­tion to adulthood.

For more than two decades, the KIDS COUNT Data Cen­ter has also tracked U.S. teens ages 16 to 19 who are nei­ther in school nor high school grad­u­ates. This ret­ro­spec­tive review is pos­i­tive, with the share of teens who are nei­ther in school nor high school grad­u­ates falling from 11% in 2000 to 4% in 2022.

At the same time, a con­sis­tent­ly large group of teens con­tin­ue to need sup­port re-engag­ing in school and work path­ways. The over­all find­ings also mask sub­stan­tial dis­par­i­ties by geog­ra­phy and race.

Oppor­tu­ni­ty Youth Stats by State, Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict and City

  • By state: The high­est per­cent­ages of oppor­tu­ni­ty youth are found in south­ern states, with at least 1 in 10 teens nei­ther in school nor work­ing in Arkansas (11%), Mis­sis­sip­pi and West Vir­ginia (both 10%), accord­ing to 2022 data. Delaware, Nebras­ka and Rhode Island had the low­est shares at 3%. Between 2021 and 2022, rates improved in 23 states and wors­ened in nine states.
    Map showing U.S. opportunity youth trend by state in 2022
  • By U.S. con­gres­sion­al dis­trict: Two con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts in the South report the high­est share of oppor­tu­ni­ty youth, per 2022 data. More than 1 in 7 teens (15%) are dis­en­gaged from both work and school in Florida’s Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict 4 (north­east Flori­da) and Louisiana’s Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict 4 (north­west­ern Louisiana). The con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts with the low­est share of oppor­tu­ni­ty youth — just 1% of teens — are in Wisconsin’s Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict 2 (south­ern Wis­con­sin, includ­ing Madi­son) and California’s Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict 16 (Bay Area).
  • By city: Among the 50 most pop­u­lous U.S. cities, the great­est share of oppor­tu­ni­ty youth are in Detroit, Michi­gan (14%), and Hous­ton, Texas (13%). The cities with the low­est share of oppor­tu­ni­ty youth are San Jose, Cal­i­for­nia (2%), and Oma­ha, Nebras­ka (3%), accord­ing to 2022 data. 

    Endur­ing Inequities for Amer­i­can Indi­an and Alas­ka Native, Lati­no and Black Youth

    The KIDS COUNT Data Cen­ter has tracked oppor­tu­ni­ty youth by race and eth­nic­i­ty for near­ly 15 years, from 2008 to 2022 (the most recent year avail­able). Over this time frame, Amer­i­can Indi­an and Alas­ka Native (AI/AN), Black and Lati­no teens con­sis­tent­ly had high­er rates of dis­con­nec­tion from school and work when com­pared to teens nation­wide. A sober­ing 12% of AI/AN youth across the coun­try were nei­ther work­ing nor in school in 2021. Native Hawai­ian and oth­er Pacif­ic Islander teens and young adults are also dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly rep­re­sent­ed among oppor­tu­ni­ty youth.

    Sim­i­lar­ly, in the two decades from 2000 to 2022, the KIDS COUNT Data Cen­ter found that AI/AN and Lati­no teens, ages 16 to 19, had high­er rates of dis­en­gage­ment from school (i.e., not in school or not high school grad­u­ates) com­pared to the nation­al average.

    These find­ings point to ongo­ing struc­tur­al inequities in access to high-qual­i­ty edu­ca­tion, work­force oppor­tu­ni­ties and relat­ed resources — such as coun­selors, school sup­port ser­vices and after-school pro­grams — that can help youth stay engaged.

    Sup­port­ing Oppor­tu­ni­ty Youth

    Pol­i­cy­mak­ers and lead­ers from mul­ti­ple sec­tors can take steps to reduce inequities and keep youth engaged in school or work, including:

    • Pro­vid­ing access to afford­able, acces­si­ble high-qual­i­ty ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tion, espe­cial­ly in low-income com­mu­ni­ties, sets the stage for aca­d­e­m­ic suc­cess and decreas­es dis­par­i­ties by income and race.
    • Pro­vid­ing equi­table access to high-qual­i­ty K–12 edu­ca­tion, includ­ing ensur­ing that schools in low-income areas have ade­quate resources, coun­selors and sup­port ser­vices as well as pos­i­tive envi­ron­ments and non-puni­tive dis­ci­pline policies.
    • Strength­en­ing ear­ly-warn­ing sys­tems in schools and com­mu­ni­ties to iden­ti­fy youth who are strug­gling and to con­nect them with need­ed sup­port, whether relat­ed to aca­d­e­mics, dis­abil­i­ties, fam­i­ly issues, health care, men­tal health or oth­er needs.
    • Ensur­ing that flex­i­ble learn­ing expe­ri­ences are avail­able and tai­lored to youth needs and offer­ing strong sup­port for the tran­si­tion from high school to post­sec­ondary path­ways, espe­cial­ly in areas with high­er rates of youth disconnection.
    • Increas­ing access to youth devel­op­ment pro­grams — such as men­tor­ing, after-school and civic engage­ment — helps youth form rela­tion­ships with sup­port­ive adults and mean­ing­ful­ly con­tribute to their community.
    • Pro­vid­ing equi­table access to high-qual­i­ty employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties, such as intern­ships, appren­tice­ships and career and tech­ni­cal train­ing programs.
    • Cre­at­ing tar­get­ed plans to address the unique needs of com­mu­ni­ties with high rates of oppor­tu­ni­ty youth.

    More Resources on Sup­port­ing Oppor­tu­ni­ty Youth

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