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The Living-in-the-Basement Generation

How young adults are faring in America’s twenty-five biggest metro areas.
 
 
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With housing prices and job numbers rising, many commentators have begun to talk about the “recovery,” with the “crisis” relegated to the past. But a crisis certainly remains, according to new research by the Social Science Research Council’s Measure of America project, for our nation’s 5.8 million “disconnected youth”—the one in seven Americans between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four who are neither working nor enrolled in school. This cohort, whose numbers were stable for a decade, surged by 800,000 after the Great Recession and includes not only children from poor and minority families but significant numbers of white, middle-class youth as well.

The consequences are dire for these young Americans. They’re not only more likely to have a hard time in the job market; researchers have found that disconnection has scarring effects on health and happiness that endure throughout a lifetime. Unemployed, uneducated youth are at greater risk for criminality and incarceration, and they often go on to become unreliable spouses and improvident parents.

The costs to society are also considerable. The direct support expenses and lost tax revenues associated with disengaged young people cost U.S. taxpayers $93 billion in 2011 alone—a bill that will only compound as the years progress.

But youth disconnection differs substantially across the country. The table below, based on data from the  Measure of America report, shows the shares of disconnected youth for America’s twenty-five largest metro areas. Eight of the ten areas with the highest levels of disconnected youth are in the Sun Belt, including Charlotte, Atlanta, Tampa, Phoenix, and Riverside-San Bernardino in Southern California. These cities’ economies were focused on suburban sprawl and thus were especially hard hit by the housing collapse. But that isn’t the only, or even the biggest, reason for their high levels of youth disconnection.

Share of Youth Not Working and Not in School in the 25 Largest Metro Areas

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“…” Means data unavailable because there are too few 16- to 24-year-olds to allow for reliable calculations. Youth disconnection rates have been rounded to one decimal place. In several instances, the values may therefore appear to be tied but the rankings reflect the original values that result from calculation of the rate. Source:  Measure of America

There is a close connection between youth disconnection and education levels or human capital, according to the study. Sun Belt metro areas have fewer highly educated adults and have tended historically to attract people with relatively lower levels of education. In contrast, the metro areas with the highest percentage of college-educated adults—places like Boston, Washington, D.C., Denver, and San Francisco—have smaller shares of disconnected youth.

This positive association between low human capital and youth disconnection stems from several mechanisms. Adults with college degrees are better able to contribute to their children’s success. College-educated parents not only provide positive role models, they also earn more money than non-college-educated parents on average. Public schools tend to be better funded in more affluent neighborhoods, and parents can afford to invest in enrichment activities outside of school. Parents with high human capital exert indirect effects on their local economies, too. Because degree holders earn more, they tend to spend more in stores, restaurants, and other businesses and thus support entry-level jobs in the local community.

Youth disconnection varies considerably by race and ethnicity, according to the report. Overall, African American youths are roughly twice as likely to be disconnected than whites, with Latinos somewhere in the middle. Asian Americans are the least disconnected.

Again the pattern varies considerably by metro area. For instance, black youth in Boston are less disconnected (14.2 percent) than white youth in San Bernardino (17.5 percent), Charlotte (16.7 percent), and Portland, Oregon (16 percent). The geographic variation in youth disconnection rates is associated with a range of factors, according to the report, including the levels of unemployment and poverty experienced by adults and the degree to which poorer neighborhoods are isolated from key institutions of mainstream society. Again, human capital or education levels play a key role.

 
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