In the Houston metro area, an estimated 14.2 percent of youth and young adults age 16 to 24 neither attended school nor were employed, according to a 2015 study from the Social Science Research Council. That translates to roughly 115,000 people. Sometimes called disconnected youth, the term "Opportunity Youth" seeks to highlight the potential for reengagement.
Researcher Kimberly Johnson, a faculty associate in the Center for Health Promotion and Prevention Research at The University of Texas School of Public Health, spoke with three focus groups of nearly 30 unemployed and unenrolled young people in Houston as part of a forthcoming study from the Kinder Institute commissioned by JPMorgan Chase & Co.
She also met with stakeholders, non-profits and other organizations who work with those young people and seek to re-engage them.
The Urban Edge spoke with Johnson about what causes young people to disengage, how Opportunity Youth manage to get by, and the implications of her research. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Leah Binkovitz: What are some common misconceptions about young people who are categorized as "Opportunity Youth"?
Kimberly Johnson: When you see the age range, some people will think, “My goodness, at least half of them are grown, so they can figure it out.” There’s an assumption that once you turn 18 you can just figure it out, and that’s a huge misunderstanding that creates missed opportunities. A lot of these young people, even those who are on the right track -- it’s tough making decisions. They’re just starting to learn, and they don’t have guidance because adults assume they’re adults too.
One young man was saying, for so long growing up, “It’s almost like you’re playing in a kiddie pool. There are so many things you can’t do and so many rules. As soon as you turn 18, it’s like you’re thrown into the ocean. You didn’t really learn how to swim.”
The idea that they aren’t motivated enough or don’t want to change or make a better life for themselves is absolutely false. A lot of times, they’ve been through so much. If the average person knew how much they faced, I’m not sure how they would go through with their lives.
Binkovitz: So at some point, they became disengaged. In talking to some of these young people, were there common events that precipitated that?
Johnson: There was a theme around education and how they became disengaged very early on, even before they dropped out or graduated. It was just this feeling that they didn’t connect with the school, school didn’t feel like a place where they felt valued or safe, and it wasn't a place where they felt like they trust the adults.
A lot of them had experienced childhood trauma or adverse experiences even before the age of 16. When they get to high school, they’ve already checked out. If there is no support in place in high school, it’s really easy for them to just become detached and really feel as if they are a failure. They just kind of give up.
We heard that a lot; struggling in their home life and then the added pressure of doing well in school, it just became too overwhelming. For the ones who were resilient and felt they were able to overcome all of that, they pointed to an individual or trusted adult in the school community that made a difference for them. A lot of them said it was something as simple as a principal knowing their name.
Another big theme was while in school, they felt they didn’t get the education they really wanted or needed because there was so much emphasis on testing. They felt like teachers weren’t able to teach and respond to their needs. A lot of them struggled with reading, so when it was time for testing, everything just shut down. We didn’t even ask about that. That was actually a surprising finding; how many of them talked about the influence of testing.
Binkovitz: Were there other findings that surprised you, like how many of them were already facing challenges finding work because of criminal background checks?
Johnson: Going in, I knew that was a major challenge for them. What was surprising was that the stakeholders didn’t seem to name that as a barrier, but the youth did. So that was a gap in the perception of how big a problem that is.
Time and time again, they gave instances of, “Someone else got the job. I know I had the qualifications, but I had this on my record. I didn’t even get a callback.” Knowing that they won’t even apply if they have to put that on the application. They understood they messed up, but they at least wanted an opportunity to explain to the potential employer what happened. That just left them feeling like, "why try?" It's leaving them with options they don’t want to do but have to: criminal activity, sex work or trading sex for a place to stay or food.
Binkovitz: How were they getting by for the most part? What were their living situations?
Johnson: It’s across the board. We talked to both homeless youth who are basically couch surfing, going from friend to friend, relative to relative. And then the other youth were living at home, with grandparents, relatives or partners. It’s a mix.
Binkovitz: How did they talk about success and the future?
Johnson: We had a question about how they define success and what motivates them. What they said, for the most part, was that they just wanted to be able to take care of themselves and support their family and be comfortable. A lot of folks drew on family as motivating or inspirational. Others talked about their sheer will or determination, making sure they had the right people in their corner.
Binkovitz: Did they feel like they got the support they needed from the various stakeholder organizations?
Johnson: They said absolutely. They’re finding people who are mentors to them, stuff they didn’t get when they were in school prior to being disengaged. A lot of them were saying they wish more people knew about these opportunities. What they really wanted to see were success stories of people who went through these programs and made it out, that looked like them and were successful.
Binkovitz: What are some of the implications or takeaways you had after talking with them?
Johnson: The programs need to start much earlier. Young people need guidance on possible career paths after high school that doesn’t only talk about college. They talked about how college is so unaffordable for them. It seems super unattainable. And then really just literacy and reading levels as early as pre-K and how important that is.