Nearly 4 million young adults ages 18 to 24 do not work, are not enrolled in school and lack a degree beyond high school, according to an Annie E. Casey Foundation research study released yesterday.

The young adults are "disconnected" from society, said Douglas W. Nelson, president of the Baltimore-based foundation. He said Kids Count, the group's annual survey of the nation's children, focused on young adults this year because their problems in childhood continue as they age. The survey found that 3.8 million young adults are cut off from the critical levers of a successful adult life.

"Despite the natural talent that they possess, they are the least likely of all our kids to succeed in adulthood," Nelson said. The disconnected group of young adults increased by 19 percent from 2000 to 2003, according to the study.

Each year, the nonprofit foundation releases a state-by-state analysis of 10 indicators used to measure child well-being. The new study found that the overall welfare of children is improving nationally but noted that the national child poverty rate remains among the highest of developed countries.

The study also found that juvenile delinquents, young adults in foster care, teenage mothers and high school dropouts are especially likely to falter as they grow into adulthood. Nelson called for more flexibility in state and federal programs and funding to work with young adults.

"Any 18-year-old who has been disconnected somehow from a natural support system needs someone else to weave together another support system. Otherwise, they'll fail," Nelson said.

Of the millions of young adults who are cut off from higher education and work and who face the prospect of a bleak adulthood, the survey found that 73,000 live in Virginia, 49,000 in Maryland and 9,000 in the District. The problem is particularly acute in the District where the number represents 20 percent of young people ages 18 to 24.

Using census and other data, the study looked at child well-being indicators -- including the infant mortality rate, the child death rate and the percent of families with children headed by a single parent -- for the period, from 1996 to 2001, the last year for which data were available. It found that eight of 10 indicators showed improvement because of a strong economy, increased funding for child care and expanded access to health care as contributing factors.

In the overall assessment of child well-being, Virginia ranked 14th among the states, Maryland ranked 27th and the District was not ranked.

The study found that the birthrate among D.C. teenagers has fallen and that the District's child poverty rate improved by 30 percent over the period. But Kinaya Sokoya, executive director of D.C. Children's Trust Fund, said more detailed, local data for the city do not reflect similar improvement.

"I believe things are getting worse" in the city, said Sokoya. For example, when looking at the District's child poverty statistics by race, 37.6 percent of African American children and 25.6 percent of Latino children are living in poverty, while 3.7 percent of non-Hispanic white children are living in poverty, said Sokoya, citing 1999 census data.

"Families are moving out of the city, and middle-class, young, urban professional people are moving in, so the poverty figures are changing because of the new arrivals," Sokoya said. "It appears that it's getting better."

Child advocates say that even though thousands of young people older than 18 could face challenges as they grow into adulthood, change is possible.

Lori Kaplan, executive director of the Latin American Youth Center in Northwest Washington, said she has seen young people in their early twenties without much education or skills change their lives.

"We've got hundreds of stories. . . . These are the kids that a lot of other people would have written off," Kaplan said. "These young people are not a lost cause."