The Kids Are Not All Right

Millions of young adults aren’t in school, don’t have jobs, and are ignored by policy makers.

A young man I know, from a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, managed to do something many of his peers did not: graduate from high school. He did so in part because he had access to a range of support services. This young man, whom I’ll call Ricky, regularly saw a social worker and had a mentor through an after-school program. He had teachers who nudged him along. And when it got heated in his neighborhood, he could remain in the school building after classes, which offered him a degree of safety. But after he graduated, that support fell away. No counseling, no place of refuge, no jobs. He began to carry a gun for self-protection. 

When I saw him recently, he had just gotten out of prison after serving six months on a gun charge. Yet again, there were no services available to him, no one to help him get his feet back on the ground or help him find a job. The one program he approached, which offers employment and counseling to men in their 20s, had no spots available. He was, like the young people Anne Kim writes about in her new book, Abandoned, completely on his own, adrift like flotsam in the sea. 

Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection by Anne Kim The New Press, 208 pp.

Near the beginning of her remarkably important book, Kim, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute (and a contributing editor to this publication), offers a startling statistic: In 2017, 4.5 million young people ages 16 to 24 were like Ricky, without a job and not in school. These people were, as Kim writes, “disconnected” from society, without support of any kind. Abandoned is, in essence, an extended argumentative essay, suggesting that we have structurally and systematically failed a population of young people who, because of class, race, or geography, have little opportunity and often face a system that is stacked against them. 

In recent decades, policy makers have recognized early childhood as a critical developmental period. Yet emerging science indicates that young adulthood may be just as significant. Early adults’ brains are still developing, and, as Kim writes, it’s an important transition time, when one learns to live on one’s own. Universities and colleges provide support for young people who are fortunate enough to attend. But we’ve done little to help young people who come from families of limited means. And young adults emerging from foster care or the criminal-justice system are in an especially difficult situation, often released without guidance or support. “This abandonment not only worsens the divergence in the individual fortunes of young people,” Kim writes, “but also contributes to the widening gaps in income, wealth, and opportunity that have increasingly become a concern for policymakers.” 

Kim lays out the problem in the first half of the book, and offers possible solutions in the second. She writes with a quiet anger. Her sentence-by-sentence dissection of a system that isn’t working for so many reveals a place where policy makers could, with a little ingenuity (and, of course, money), make a big difference in the country’s growing inequality. 

In both her description of the problem and her assessment of the solutions, Kim hones in on housing. There is not only a dearth of transitional housing for those leaving prison or foster care, but also a shortage of affordable housing for those getting by on low wages. She cites a study by the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall which found that one in 10 young adults experiences homelessness over the course of a year. 

A 20-year-old woman named Keisha, with whom Kim spends time, is three months pregnant, working a part-time job at a clothing store, and moving from house to house, staying with extended family and friends. She doesn’t know where she’ll live after the baby is born: Both of her parents have passed away, so there’s no one in her immediate family for her to lean on. A place to live is fundamental to a person’s well-being and sense of community; Kim is right to emphasize housing as a foundational support we should offer to young people in need. 

The book also speaks to the particular problems of rural communities, which often lack access to higher education. According to the Social Science Research Council—one of the only institutions to examine this population—in some rural counties more than 60 percent of young people are disconnected, not in school, and not working. Where you live matters. Grow up in a rural county or in a distressed urban neighborhood, and you’re more likely to become disconnected as a young adult. 

When she turns to solutions, Kim identifies mentoring and apprenticeship programs as a source of promise. In recent years, there has been excitement around the potential impact of mentoring programs, most notably Chicago’s Becoming a Man program. An evaluation of the project found that young people who participated were less likely to be arrested and more likely to graduate high school, and President Obama used it as inspiration for My Brother’s Keeper, his initiative aimed at boosting the educational attainment of young minority men. But as Kim suggests, mentoring without structural changes—including the availability of well-paying jobs—may be for naught. 

Kim wisely intersperses the data and research with on-the-ground scenes, but it’s here that the book falls short. She introduces several interesting characters, but doesn’t delve deeply into their personal stories. For example, early on, we meet Rochelle, a young woman who had been arrested at the age of sixteen. Rochelle glibly tells Kim, “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people.” What was she arrested for? Does she still wrestle with what she did? We never find out.

The book’s assessment of policies meant to serve young adults also does not fully satisfy. For example, Kim describes a significant government program, the Job Corps, which has failed the young people it was meant to serve. The program is aimed at the very population Kim is focused on: young adults who, for one reason or another, are disconnected and adrift. The Job Corps emerged from Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and some 50 years later receives $1.7 billion a year in funding. A 2018 New York Times story described how no one in Congress wants to cut this program, and yet, by many accounts, it has failed its participants. On paper, the Job Corps seems to get it right: It offers a respite for young adults from troubled families and troubled neighborhoods, housing them in dormitory settings while training them in apprenticeship-like programs so that they have the skills to find good jobs and the means to achieve independence. However, in March 2018, the Labor Department’s inspector general concluded that the “Job Corps could not demonstrate beneficial job training outcomes.” Where did the program go off the rails? Was it ever successful? The history of this program could be edifying when formulating policy to help young adults. 

These critiques aside, Kim has set the table for a much-needed conversation about a population of young people neglected for far too long. The power of this book is not in the proposed solutions—it’s clear that we’re still not sure what might make a difference—but rather in its clear-eyed argument that we have a problem most policy makers haven’t even acknowledged. As Kim writes, “America is suffering from a crisis of opportunity among its young adults.” The consequences are profound. In a nation already confronting a growing divide between the haves and the have-nots, our neglect of these disconnected young adults only widens that chasm. Indeed, as Kim concludes, “young adults for too long have been the missing link in our national conversation about opportunity, inequality, and the future of American prosperity.”

Support the Washington Monthly and get a FREE subscription

Alex Kotlowitz

Alex Kotlowitz teaches journalism at Northwestern University and is the author of four books, including his most recent, An American Summer.