America's ongoing recovery from the Great Recession has pulled a larger percentage of young adults off the sidelines and into school or a job than has been the case in years.
But progress hasn't been universal.
The Social Science Research Council's Measure of America report released this week shows an average of 12.3 percent of Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 – or 4.9 million young adults – were neither employed nor in school in 2015.
That's down 16 percent from 2010's post-recessionary peak and is slightly lower than the 12.6 percent reading seen in 2008, before the recession pushed the national unemployment rate into double-digits.
"Just as the Great Recession swelled the ranks of disconnected young people, the economic recovery reduced them; at least part of the drop in youth disconnection is due to the nationwide decline in the unemployment rate for workers of all ages between 2010 and 2015," the report says. "Thanks to a recovering economy, climbing high school graduation rates and the efforts of individuals, organizations and businesses across the country, more young people are finding solid footholds in the worlds of school and work."
A traditional government barometer of young adult engagement doesn't paint a complete picture, as the labor force participation rate – which for 16- to 24-year-olds sat at 55 percent at the end of 2016 – tracks those who are employed or actively looking for work. So those who aren't trying to get a job or who are in school don't show up in the metric.
The Measure of America report paints a more specific and uplifting picture, though the study's authors note that "looking only at the topline national rate masks great variation among demographic groups and geographic regions."
"There is astonishing variation in disconnection rates by race and ethnicity, ranging from nearly 1 in 14 Asian-American youth to more than 1 in 4 Native American young people," the report says.
All told, 7.2 percent of young Asian-Americans, 10.1 percent of young whites and 14.3 percent of young Latinos were considered disconnected and neither employed nor in school. Nearly 1 in 5 young black Americans – 18.9 percent – and more than 1 in 4 young Native Americans – 25.4 percent – were sitting on the sidelines.
"For young people of all races, the probability of disconnection falls as household incomes rise. White youth in affluent households are less likely to be disconnected than white youth in poor households, and the same is true for the other racial and ethnic groups," the report says. "Clearly poverty is associated with higher rates of youth disconnection, affluence with lower rates."
Geographic variations also paint a complicated picture. Rural counties were significantly larger hubs for disconnected youth than urban areas, with rates of 20.3 percent and 14.2 percent, respectively. Suburban counties, meanwhile, fared better than both with a disconnection rate of only 12.3 percent.
Rural counties in the geographic South were particularly exposed to disconnection, as 24 percent of young adults in such areas weren't working or furthering their education – around double the national rate.
The report broadly notes that "issues facing rural America [have] come to the fore" in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, during which strong support from disaffected rural communities propelled President Donald Trump into the White House despite his seeming disadvantage based on public polling.
But the report authors also highlight misconceptions about disaffected young people in the public discourse.
"Countless magazine and newspaper articles told stories of middle-class, college-educated young people unable to find work and living glumly among elementary school karate trophies and Green Day posters in their childhood bedrooms," the study says. "But as real and painful as those particular 20-somethings' experiences were, college-educated young people were a tiny slice of the disconnected youth population even at the recession's height. Disconnected young people are disproportionately poor, living with disabilities and parenting children, and only 4 percent of them have college degrees."
On a more uplifting note, the report shows that 16 states and the nation's capital saw reductions in their disconnection rates of at least 20 percent between 2010 and 2015. The District of Columbia led the pack with a 43.9 percent reduction in its disconnection rate. New Hampshire, Hawaii, Nevada and Tennessee rounded out the top five.
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