D.C. youth unemployment exceeds national rate

October 6, 2011

Nearly one in three low-income young adults without a four-year college degree in the District was unemployed and not in school in 2009, far higher than the national rate, according to a report released Wednesday by the Brookings Institution.

Using census data, the report examined 28,000 low-income 16-to-24-year-olds in Washington who had not earned a bachelor’s degree. Of those, nearly 9,000 were unemployed and not in school.

Martha Ross, a Brookings fellow and author of the report, said the results illustrate “a serious economic and social challenge for the city. These and many other D.C. youth struggle to succeed in high school, post-secondary education and the labor market.”

The report, “Strengthening Educational and Career Pathways for D.C. Youth,” questions the effectiveness and efficiency of how the city trains and prepares young workers. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has said that workforce training for new and older workers was a chief aim of his administration, but the report shows how deep-seated the problems are.

The results are most sobering for black youths: Nearly 40 percent — 7,000 — of the low-income youths in the study group were not enrolled in school and not working. Of those, 4,700 were not in the labor force, meaning they were not working or looking for work. Low income is defined as a family of four with a household income of $44,500 or less.

“A lot of kids get really frustrated. They want someone to help them find jobs, but then those jobs aren’t there,” said Levi Thompson, 18, a recent graduate of Anacostia High School who works with teenagers at Sasha Bruce Youthwork, a nonprofit agency in Southeast. “Sometimes that frustration turns to anger.”

The report found that more than a third of the organizations tasked with job readiness reported turning youths away because they did not have enough space, funding or staff to administer the initiatives. In other cases, workforce programs for youths hadn’t existed long enough or did not have adequate ways to track success.

Business leaders said that part of the solution is that city-sponsored internship rules are too cumbersome.

“These are tragic results,” said Margaret Singleton, vice president and executive director of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. “Most of our business owners don’t live in the city, so they need more understanding and an efficient process of hiring young people who are qualified.”

Those who work directly with children said there must be more focus on vocational training and helping youths develop career goals.

“So many of our children have been marginalized and disaffected, they don't know how to seek out what’s available to them,” said Azalia Speight, principal at Luke C. Moore High School in Northeast. “It’s our job to expose them to all that’s out here, but in many cases they haven’t yet had the chance to determine how they can build their talents into something that will lead to a career.”

The report focused on those 16 to 24 because that period is generally considered a time when young people are transitioning to adulthood.

The results in the Brookings report are consistent with the high rates of unemployment for this group nationwide: The youth unemployment rate during the summer was 18.1 percent for those 16 to 24, compared with 9.1 percent for the general population.

“It’s hard to get a chance,” said Oluwafemi Falade, 20, who graduated from Dunbar High School in May and has been searching for work. “It’s been hard.”

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