Who Are Opportunity Youth?
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.
- 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
- See all data on youth and young adults in the KIDS COUNT Data Center, including more than 60 indicators related to employment, poverty, education, health, mental health and family and community issues
- Download these publications:
- Creating Equitable Ecosystems of Belonging and Opportunity for Youth, Forum for Youth Investment;
- Insights From a Pandemic, Johns Hopkins University’s Everyone Graduates Center;
- Tipping the Scale, Jobs for the Future; and
- Community-Based Workforce Engagement Supports for Youth and Young Adults Involved in the Criminal Legal System, Urban Institute.