Pennsylvania looks for solutions for 'disconnected youth'

Agencies say older teens with no jobs or studies headed to poverty

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Another teenager shows up on the doorstep of Peggy Harris' homeless shelter in East Liberty. Like a lot of the people who come to Three Rivers Youth, he ran away from home.

"Kids who run away are running from something, not to something," Ms. Harris said. "There's probably a bad situation he's coming from."

In Pennsylvania, 15 percent of people ages 16-19 are neither in school nor employed, according to census data. Policymakers refer to this population as disconnected youth and say that they contribute to long-term poverty rates.

In that category, Pennsylvania tied with West Virginia with the highest percentage in the nation.

Many of these youths end up in shelters such as the one Ms. Harris runs.

"These are kids in a lot of cases whose families have disengaged with them. Families will effectively kick their kids out," she said. "We call them 'couch kids' because they stay on a friend's or cousin's couch for as long as a responsible adult doesn't figure out that they have no place to be."

Danielle Gray, deputy director of the National Economic Council, said the issue of disconnected youth is a "huge problem" affecting the entire country.

"It is obvious that too many of our young people are sitting on the sidelines and not crossing that first step of getting a job or degree," Ms. Gray said.

Desmond Brown specializes in disconnected youth for Half in Ten, a nonprofit that aims to cut American poverty by one-half in the next decade.

"Reducing disconnected youth is a big part of that strategy," he said. "Those who aren't studying or working are likely to have a low income. There are a lot of things that cause someone to be poor, such as teen pregnancy, and we know that disconnected youth tend to be more susceptible to teen pregnancy. So when we talk about this issue, there are even more issues that come with it."

Mr. Brown said it's important to deal with the issue of disconnected youth because a large percentage of that population winds up in poverty.

In other poverty-indicating measures, such as the rates of high school graduation or employment, Pennsylvania ranks about average against other states. Why, then, are so many of its young people on a path toward poverty?

More than 96 percent of unemployed Pennsylvanians are receiving state unemployment benefits, the second most of any state in the nation.

But the commonwealth's unemployment program might actually be contributing to the youth problem, Ms. Harris said.

"It creates an entitlement culture," she said. "Those social policies are disincentives for people to look for work. Young people, they'll say, 'Why should I get a part-time job when I'm making almost as much doing nothing?' "

Youths are particularly susceptible to this logic, Ms. Harris said.

Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto said the cash-strapped federal government has provided less funding for programs to help underprivileged youth, shifting the burden to community groups and local agencies.

"We need to work with families to stop people from dropping out of school and help with mental illness issues, which are a large factor in these situations," he said. "Treating it at the beginning is a lot better. The kid who's stealing a car at 17 is likely to be the one who's walking into a bank with a gun at 21. You can resolve a problem early at home or when it's flagged in school when they're 13."

But not all families are capable of doing it for themselves.

"There are lots of kids whose families have helped them figure it out, but we don't always have strong families who can shepherd them into that place," Ms. Harris said.

Beginning this fall, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl is running a youth mentoring program to help fill that void. Through the Mayor's Mentoring Initiative, city workers will be granted leave time to serve as mentors for sixth-graders. More than 100 city employees, including Mr. Ravenstahl, are enrolled in the program.

Non-city employees interested in mentoring can volunteer by visiting the mayor's website.

The city in 2007 launched the Pittsburgh Promise, a program that guarantees a $20,000 college scholarship for youths who graduate from a Pittsburgh public school or one of its charter high schools while maintaining a 90 percent attendance record and a 2.5 grade point average.

The value of the scholarship is based on how many years the student is enrolled in Pittsburgh public schools, and the money is good at any public or private post-secondary school in the state.

Effective next year, the maximum scholarship amount will double to $40,000.

"It's a change in thinking the mayor is trying to instill in the population," mayoral spokeswoman Joanna Doven said. "By the time they enter public school at the age of 5, there's an expectation not only to go through school, but to get a higher education."

No school has admitted more Pittsburgh Promise recipients than the Community College of Allegheny County, which recently launched a new program to help the area's disconnected youth.

The school created the Young Adult Empowerment Program, which recruits troubled youths -- usually 17 or 18 years old -- from community groups. Now in its third year, the program trains its 41 students to work in welding, plumbing, construction and other fields it has labeled as high priority for the Pittsburgh region.

"This program is different because we're focusing in on those youths specifically," said David Young, the CCAC associate dean who oversees the program. "It is important because that age group has been typically an age group that needs more assistance in understanding about the jobs that are available."

The program's students are held to the same academic standards as everyone else at CCAC.

"They just needed a start somewhere," Mr. Young said. "In many cases, they don't have any idea about what to do -- how to fill out financial aid papers, how to enroll. We just guide them."

Mr. Young subscribes to the theory that success breeds success.

"If we have enough of these successful students, they're going to be tax-paying citizens who will hopefully increase the productivity in Pittsburgh," he said. "Once you have a positive group of individuals who, in many cases, didn't see a way out before this, the news will spread."

CCAC offers an array of job-preparation programs, such as training for solar panel installation on green roofs.

"It's become a model," Mr. Peduto said. "You don't need to have a college degree. You don't necessarily need to have a high school degree if you can get them on a path to a GED program. Maybe the answer isn't in a big, comprehensive approach. Maybe the answer is dealing with it on small initiatives and empowering those initiative to be able to succeed."


Drew Singer: dsinger@post-gazette.com .


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