A legacy of racism

According to Sarah Burd-Sharps, Measure of America’s co-director and an author of the report “Halve the Gap,” while there are at least a half-dozen variables that contribute to youth disconnection, much of the problem is rooted in a legacy of structural racism and segregation.

“In cities where there is a high degree of racial segregation by neighborhood, we see some of the worst rates of youth disconnection,” she said. “So it’s about communities that are largely African American that are excluded in every way, from a lack of adequate transportation and health care, to schools that are basically dropout factories. It’s about exclusion on every level.”

Philadelphia is one of the most racially segregated cities in America – ranking higher than Birmingham, Ala., Memphis, Tenn. and Atlanta, Ga., according to an analysis of 2010 Census data. The city is ranked sixth out of 25 major metropolitan areas for white-Black racial segregation and seventh for isolation. When scored by income, the Philadelphia metro area is the fifth most segregated of the 10 largest U.S. cities, according to a 2012 report from the Pew Research Center.

Thanks to this kind of rigid social immobility, even in 2013 a child’s future status remains intricately tied to that of his or her parents.

“Our tolerance for social and economic mobility is based on the idea that equal opportunity will mean that disadvantaged adults will not have disadvantaged children; however, the characteristics of most disconnected youth belie that,” said Ronald Mincy, a professor of social work at Columbia University and director of the Center for Research on Fathers, Children, and Family Well-Being.

Poor kids start out with little social capital, and are less likely to acquire it in low-performing schools. But a large part of the problem of youth disconnection can also be attributed to the changing structure of the workforce which, unlike decades past, offers few opportunities for fruitful blue-collar employment.

“The structure of our labor force has changed drastically,” said Burd-Sharps. “Someone who just has a high school diploma in today’s knowledge economy can’t have the same income stability that they once did, so secondary education is critical. There’s a lack of opportunity, which is a big part of it, and certainly Philadelphia has been hit hard and in very disproportionate ways.”

By 2018 it’s projected that nearly two-thirds of job openings will require some post-secondary education, and the largest jobs growth will be in fields that require at least an associate’s degree. Only about a quarter of students from Philadelphia’s “neighborhood schools” — which include public high schools servicing some of the city’s poorest areas — make it to college within six years of graduation, data shows.

“The sad fact is that a 16-year-old dropping out of high school and wanting to work has no options,” said David Dodson, president of MDC Inc., a prominent community development group headquartered in Durham, N.C. “A knowledge economy rewards education and we are turning out young people who are not contributing to their future or ours.”

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