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An alarming number of teenagers are quitting school to work

New research from the Urban Institute shows there is a pressing need for policy solutions to reach kids at risk of trading off their high school education to support their family (iStock).

Teenagers drop out of high school for all sorts of reasons: lack of motivation, little support from parents, poor academic performance. But for some low-income students, the decision to leave is purely economic. Many are going to work so they can start making money to help their families.

Using data from the 2008-2012 American Community Survey, researchers at the Urban Institute found that nearly a third of the 563,000 teenage dropouts left school to work. These 16- to 18-year-olds were disproportionately male and Hispanic, and ended their education either at the beginning of high school or nearing the end. Roughly 75 percent of them are native-born Americans, the new study said.

Granted, high school graduation rates among Hispanic students has climbed in recent years, with 75 percent receiving a diploma in 2013 compared to 71 percent two years earlier, according to the latest data from the Education Department. Still, young Hispanic men are at high risk of leaving school to work, the Urban Institute study found.

Six out of 10 of the teenagers identified in the study earned less than $10,000 a year working in restaurants, on construction sites, cleaning buildings, among other things. A third of the kids contribute more than 20 percent of the total annual income of their households, a tenth contributed more than 50 percent, the study said.

On average, what these teenagers earned made up almost a quarter of the money their families needed to live. And that money kept 42 percent of households from falling below the poverty line. Given that wages are stagnant and many high-paying blue collar jobs are disappearing, more low-income families may simply need more workers in their households to stay afloat, the study concluded.

The research fits into a larger conversation around education and income inequality. There has been a lot of discussion about college affordability and access being critical in providing students a path out of poverty. But there is also a pressing need for policy solutions to reach kids who may be at risk of trading off their high school education to support their family.

"We have a lot of assumptions about dropouts being checked out," said Molly M. Scott, one of the authors of the report and a senior research associate at Urban Institute. "But when you look at the amount these kids are working and contributing to their households, they have a lot of economic responsibility at a young age."

As a result, the prevention strategies commonly used to help at risk youth, such as early academic and behavioral intervention, just aren't enough to help these kids, according to the researchers.

With that in mind, any intervention for teens who play an economic role in their household may have to help them and their families. Researchers suggested policymakers consider providing parents training, job placement or access to resources that could ease some of the economic stress. Many of the teenagers identified in the study lived in households that didn't take advantage of safety net programs like food stamps or cash assistance.

Policymakers also need to support youth employment programs that pay market wages, which many summer job initiatives don't, Scott said. Considering that students are at risk of leaving school to help meet their family's short-term economic needs, higher wages in these programs could alleviate some of the pressure.

"The elephant in the room in conversations about dropouts and even in higher education is poverty," said Scott, noting that 65 percent of kids who quit high school are at or below the poverty line. "If there is an economic element to the reasons why folks drop out or don't continue their education, then our interventions need to treat it like that."

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