Each year, the Annie E. Casey Foundation conducts a survey of youth in America called Kids Count. It measures categories such as infant mortality, school expulsions, and birth rates and publishes the statistics. The foundation also compiles a booklet on one of the categories in the annual report. This year, the foundation focused on a group of young people known as "disconnected youth."
Also called the "silent demographic," youngsters in this category are 18 to 24 years old and are unemployed or not enrolled in school. According to the survey, there are 3.8 million disconnected youth in America, accounting for 15 percent of all young people. Equally troubling is that the number of disconnected young people has grown 19 percent in the last three years.
Reasons for the disconnect vary. Many lack job skills; many are high school dropouts; and many lack family structure. For these reasons, the transition from adolescence to adulthood is more difficult than for their educated and employed counterparts.
The Kids Count survey notes that most of the country's disconnected youth are from urban areas. Many are born into poverty and are themselves parents. Most are minorities, and many have been involved in the juvenile justice system. But the foundation's report goes beyond tabulating statistics. It also notes the measures that cities -- like Memphis -- can take to help this group reconnect.
Kids Count national project coordinator William O'Hare says it's important to look at the big picture. "There was not a lot of data from national studies on why these kids were disconnected," he says. "In smaller studies the reasons were the usual: growing up in poverty, which is related to almost every negative outcome that we have. Kids who have fallen through the cracks at school, who don't fit in, tend not to complete school. Those who do complete it don't get much of an education and don't do well in the transition."
According to the report, approximately 87,000 disconnected youngsters live in Tennessee, or about 17 percent of the state's total number of young people. Twenty-five percent of disconnected youth live in poverty, more than 20,000 of them are teenage mothers, and almost 2,000 were detained or incarcerated each year in the juvenile justice system. "A few generations ago kids were able to take care of themselves," O'Hare says. "Now we need to recognize that 18 is not the magic number that it used to be. There are too many young adults who don't have the family support necessary to sustain them."
A broken family led Memphian Maleeka Plummer to that disconnected group. Plummer dropped out of school at age 14 and ran away from her father and family in Oakland, California, to look for her estranged mother in Florida. She found her mother on drugs. After a short stint living together, Plummer's mother kicked her out, and Plummer was homeless.
"A day in my life then was pretty rough," says Plummer, now 19. "I'd wake up most of the time and just get out and walk the streets. Then some guy comes honking and asking do you need a ride, so you jump in the car and you spend your day from there. Most of the time, wherever they take you is where you have to sleep. I've seen my life from every aspect you can possibly think of."
Fortunately for Plummer, her grandparents in Collierville rescued her from street life but not before she had gotten pregnant.
In addition to teen parents and school dropouts, the study highlights a third group of youth who are not as easy to rehabilitate -- those who have been involved in the juvenile justice system. Approximately two-thirds of the 27,000 youth incarcerated nationwide are minorities, and once involved in the criminal justice system, most never return to school.
At 15, Arthur Washington found himself in Mississippi's Parchman prison, charged as an adult for armed robbery. Like Plummer, Washington is a Memphis transplant, whose home is West Palm Beach, Florida. The tales he tells are horrific. "I've seen an inmate get his head sliced off as we were walking to chow," he says. "One of the other inmates used a sharpened lawn-mower blade. All we heard was a rolling thump and you better just keep on walking."
At 23, Washington still doesn't look a day over 18, but three years in prison have matured him. He had a dream in prison about his dying mother and vowed to change his ways. But to make the transition to a productive life, he, like Plummer, needed help.
The country's disconnected youth will soon lose a major source of assistance, as the 36 Youth Opportunity, or Yo!, programs throughout the country run out of federal funding at the end of the 2005 fiscal year.
Locally, Yo! Memphis originally received $26 million under a five-year grant made possible by the Workforce Investment Act during the Clinton administration. With the Bush administration's shift in focus to No Child Left Behind in-school programs, Yo! program funding has not been renewed. In addition to the cut in youth services, 45 employees in the Memphis office will lose their jobs.
Yo! Memphis has assisted more than 3,000 youth during its nearly five years of operation and is considered the premier Yo! program in the country. According to a report issued by the U.S. Department of Labor, Memphis' Yo! program ranked number one in services.
Yo! Memphis executive director Marie Milam sees a bleak future for youth in this demographic once the program is ended. "There will be no assistance to complete high school. There will be no assistance to enroll in college and to get occupational skills training to get jobs," she says. "They will pretty much be on their own."
Some other Yo! programs across the country have managed to raise money from local government and private donors. Milam and the Memphis board of directors, which includes state representative Lois DeBerry and Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley, have also attempted to locate alternative funding. The organization has opened a charter school for students in grades 10 through 12. "We're writing some small grant applications, responding to smaller proposals, trying to keep funding coming in," says Milam. "We're asking the City Council to consider us in its next budget."
But according to council member TaJuan Stout Mitchell, the council was not presented with the option of putting the program in the budget. The budget, which was approved earlier this year, did not include funding for Yo! Memphis.
"I hate to turn them down, but we can't help everyone," says Allison Fouche. Fouche is a Yo! Memphis caseworker who helps 14- to 21-year-olds obtain a GED, find careers, and learn other life skills. "I came to [Yo! Memphis] as a public relations specialist. When I found out I had to have a caseload as well, it took me by surprise," she says. "What it did was make me look at my life and the things I take for granted. For these kids, at least most of them, if someone reaches out a hand and offers help, they will take that hand."
For Yo! Memphis, disconnected youth have accounted for more than half of the program's enrollment. With the federal grant that provides major funding for the program set to expire, Yo! Memphis is scrambling to place kids with other organizations. Caseworkers like Fouche have seen their caseloads double.
Outreach programs across the country are facing similar cuts, says O'Hare. "There was an awful lot of improvement in the well-being of children in the late 1990s, partly because of the economy but more because of the expansion of programs. In the past couple of years, there hasn't been a wholesale cutting of those programs, but little things here and there in terms of tightening up health-care [programs] are starting to concern me," he says.
At Yo! Memphis, stories like Plummer's and Washington's abound. In addition to helping youth return to school, the program also provides many basic necessities: food, clothes, and even shelter. Students are also offered occupational skills training. After obtaining his forklift-operator's license, Washington landed a warehouse job paying $15 per hour. He still has not completed his GED requirements, but he continues to take courses.
Washington's success is not the norm for young people who have been incarcerated. Youths with criminal records typically get fewer employment opportunities. "A lot of young people who have gotten out of prison are trying to change their lives," says Washington, "but they can't get jobs. I'm a perfect example. When I was trying to find a job, companies were telling me that it had to be seven years before the felony was cleared from my record."
And even if they do qualify for a position, fewer jobs are available.
"There was a major decline in 2002 and 2003 in the number of 18- to 24-year-olds who hold manufacturing jobs in this country," says O'Hare. "The young folk are bearing the brunt of these tough economic times. It's the ones trying to get into the labor force who have the hardest time when the economy is not doing well."
The Casey Foundation recommended sweeping reforms of the juvenile justice system to help stem the number of incarcerated youth, specifically minorities. The Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, which oversees the state's juvenile justice system, has proposed changes in school truancy policies, creating aftercare and assisted-living placements and developing more male-mentoring programs.
But for every young person who is helped by organizations like Yo! Memphis, there are others who refuse assistance. "It frustrates you sometimes, but there has to be a moment where you say, I want this for myself, and a lot of kids don't have that," says Fouche. "One girl on my caseload came here with four kids and left here with six. She got her GED, got in college, then stopped going. Sometimes you want to wring these kids' necks."
Still others, like 18-year-old Luctricia Lewis, take advantage of the program's opportunities. As one of six children raised in a single-parent home, Lewis credits Yo! Memphis with keeping her in school. "I think the South is America's backyard, and I think this is where a lot of bad things happen," says Lewis. "As Southerners, it's time for us to learn to clean up our own backyard and help these youth."
With programs like Yo! Memphis coming to an end, other organizations will be forced to help disconnected young people.
When Atasha Adams was in the 11th grade at Pyramid Academy on Poplar Avenue, both her parents were drug users. Her mother went to prison. After years of bouncing from family member to family member, Adams discussed her situation with one of her teachers. The teacher took her to the Salvation Army, where Adams has been living ever since.
"It is interesting that the Department of Human Services never got involved [with Adams], because all of her family members received support for her," says Salvation Army outreach coordinator Shelly Baker. "You would think that DHS would see that the support had gone from the grandfather, to the sister, to the auntie, back to the grandfather. ... That would be a red flag to say that this child is not in a stable environment. But there was never any intervention."
Sitting in the Salvation Army's break room, Adams cries when discussing her past. "It was never secure," she says. "The Salvation Army is the only place that I can call home."
Making her situation more difficult, Adams became a mother during the 11th grade. Still, while living at the Salvation Army shelter, Adams managed to finish school, move into transitional housing, and is scheduled to begin community college this fall.
The Salvation Army is usually associated with assisting victims of natural disaster and domestic violence, but with the increase in the number of young adults with social problems, the organization has expanded its services. About Adams, Baker says: "She needed to stay until after she graduated. Sometimes the residential stays are short-term, other times, long-term. Each case is handled individually. As long as a person is doing something to better themselves, we'll work with them. We're not going to throw them out on the street."
The family shelter houses an average of 120 people each night. "This is not a drop-in shelter," says Baker. "They have to be willing to enter a program and do something that will help them get better."
Most disconnected youth want to do better, says O'Hare. "'Overlooked' is a word that could be used to describe this group," he says. "It is assumed that they want to be on their own, but there is a tricky balance to that. In years past, a young person got a factory job, stayed there 50 years, and retired, able to care for his family. That is no longer the case, and we have to realize that these kids are going to need our help."
Yo! Memphis employees are facing the end of their program with mixed emotions. "We're not just staff members. We're caring adults," says caseworker Christy Luellen. "If we don't get more funding, our goal is to make sure that our youth have skills to let them stand on their own, be independent, be successful. I'm so in awe of these kids who have overcome so much. Every day here was an eye-opener. It was destined for me to be here."
Fouche wants more community involvement.
"With Yo! Memphis and these other programs, we're just Band-Aiding the problem. It goes back to the old saying that it takes a village to raise a child. If we all get back to caring for one another, then we can make a difference." "
Additional reporting by Christian Edge.