Nearly 1 in 6 Louisianans aged 16 to 24 are neither working nor going to school. The state’s youth disconnection rate of 16.4% – representing 92,100 children and young adults – is the fourth-highest in the United States, according to a new report by Measure of America, A Portrait of Louisiana 2020: Human Development in an Age of Uncertainty

These rates reflect pre-pandemic conditions, meaning they have almost certainly worsened in recent months, and describe a cohort of young people who are neither in school nor working, also known as “Opportunity Youth.” 

Young people of color are disproportionately represented in this group. Despite making up only 37.3% of young adults, young Black Louisianans make up 50.5% of disconnected youth in the state. Young Black men in Louisiana, despite only being 18.8% of young adults in the state, make up 27.1% of all disconnected youth.

Opportunity Youth are more vulnerable than others their age. They are Louisianans transitioning from childhood to adulthood without the social and economic support needed to thrive later in life. Many come from families struggling to make ends meet, and may be experiencing challenges such as homelessness, substance abuse, teen pregnancy or mental illness. And while people of all races and backgrounds are represented among Opportunity Youth, this cohort disproportionately includes young Black people.

Unfortunately, young people have been particularly hard hit by the economic downturn that has taken place amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Young adults are over represented  in jobs, such as restaurants and retail, that were most affected by shutdowns, and are more likely to have a job that cannot be worked remotely according to researchers at the Economic Policy Institute. As a result, unemployment for 16-to-24-year-olds has increased dramatically, rising from 8.4% in Spring of 2019 to 24.4% in Spring of 2020 likely causing the number of youth who are disconnected from both school and work to swell. For comparison, unemployment for workers ages 25 and older rose from 2.8% to 11.3% during that same period of time.

While the current economic crisis has affected most young people in one way or another, people of color have been hit hardest by the economic impacts of Covid-19, with Black and Hispanic young women and Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) young men bearing the brunt.

Reconnecting these young workers to jobs, education and training will be essential to ensuring a fair and lasting recovery in a post-Covid-19 Louisiana economy. 

Breaking down the barriers facing Louisiana’s Opportunity Youth will require a holistic approach. No single policy change will address all problems, and no two people face identical challenges, which often vary depending on geography, race, gender, household income and educational achievement. Additionally, as disconnection disproportionately impacts people of color, connecting Opportunity Youth will require addressing policies and problems rooted in racism, which have left Black communities in particular at an economic disadvantage in Louisiana. 

While many of the obstacles facing Louisiana’s Opportunity Youth are challenging, none of the problems they experience are mysterious or unsolvable. In fact, they include problems shared by many other working and low-income people and communities. By addressing the needs of and challenges faced by Opportunity Youth, Louisiana is not only ensuring that it’s taking care of its most vulnerable young people, it will be helping to also address the needs of all working Louisianans by building a more just and equitable state economy.

In order to ensure that Opportunity Youth are connected in a post-Covid-19 economy, Louisiana policymakers should do the following: 

  • Extend, expand, and increase state unemployment insurance (UI) benefits: State and federal boosted unemployment benefits were essential in keeping displaced workers economically afloat in the early months of the pandemic. But these benefits have mostly expired, while many remain unemployed and others have stopped looking for work altogether. Louisiana should extend eligibility for those who remain unemployed; expand UI benefits to include individuals who were not previously employed, such as recent high school and college graduates, but are now seeking employment; and increase UI benefits provided by the state.
  • Create a state workshare program: When businesses are faced with the prospect of mass layoffs or furloughs, one alternative offered in 26 states is workshare – where employers reduce hours and pay in order to retain and continue providing benefits to employees. These programs are generally funded in part by UI benefits to help bridge the gap between lost wages. While creating a program now would not likely address unemployment in this pandemic, it could reduce the costs of future disasters or economic crises and help to keep all workers – especially Opportunity Youth – employed.
  • Make higher education more affordable and accessible: The American economy is becoming increasingly specialized, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated that trend. As a result, Louisiana must ensure that higher education is available and affordable to all young people, and can do so by emulating programs in other states. For example, the Tennessee Promise program makes community and technical colleges (CTCs) tuition-free for all high school graduates (or equivalents) who complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). New York’s student loan forgiveness program is available to in-state college graduates who choose to live and work in New York. Louisiana’s TOPS (merit-based aid) and Go Grants (need-based aid) programs can be adjusted in ways that replicate these programs and put an affordable college education in reach for Opportunity Youth.
  • Guarantee statewide broadband Internet access: If the pandemic has revealed anything, it is that Internet access is required for modern school, work, and entertainment. According to BroadbandNow, only 75% of Louisianans have access to high-speed, reliable Internet (also known as broadband); the Louisiana Department of Education found that 25% of school age children lack sufficient Internet access. While Louisiana’s government has made universal broadband access a priority, the state should also ensure that broadband is treated as a public utility, not unlike electricity or water. Doing so would prevent Opportunity Youth from being disconnected from our increasingly digital economy.
  • Reform juvenile justice: One factor that can contribute to a young person becoming a part of the Opportunity Youth cohort is incarceration or other interactions with the criminal justice system, which often disrupt education and ability to work. As pointed out by Measure of America in its previously mentioned report, despite some positive criminal justice reforms, Louisiana remains one of only three states that allows charging 15-to-17-year olds as adults for certain crimes. According to the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, there are currently 2,338 young adults between the ages of 17 and 24 in state and local prisons, 51 of them serving life sentences. To ensure Opportunity Youth have a fair opportunity at productive lives, Louisiana must pursue further reforms aimed at ensuring children are treated fairly and not as adults within the state’s criminal justice system.
  • Raise a state minimum wage: As the economy recovers from COVID-19, many Opportunity Youth will be either trying to return to or looking to begin jobs that, in 2021, will pay $7.25 an hour, the same federal minimum wage established in 2009. The nearly twelve years since the wage was last raised have been the longest period of minimum wage stagnation since 1938, when the minimum wage was first established. Adopting a higher state minimum wage has been long overdue in Louisiana – doing so now will provide a higher standard of living; help businesses by ensuring people have enough money to spend on their services and goods; and ensure Opportunity Youth are making money necessary to provide for their needs and lead good lives.
  • Provide affordable childcare, public transportation, and housing: Many of the barriers facing Opportunity Youth are due to a lack of adequate and affordable public services. By fully funding early care and education, Louisiana can ensure that Opportunity Youth who have or care for younger children are able to continue pursuing education or working. By providing more public transit, both in rural and urban settings, Louisiana can ensure that Opportunity Youth can get to school or workplaces. By providing affordable housing options, Louisiana can reduce risks of homelessness and prevent instability that lead to Opportunity Youth becoming disconnected. These are policies that would surely help all Louisianans – but would lift Opportunity Youth towards more dignified lives by breaking cycles of poverty and economic insecurity.