Pocomoke High School teacher Brooke Gillespie and senior Rebeka Kline, who plans to study art at a local community college...

Rising numbers of rural youth are unemployed and out of school, and it’s costing all of us

POCOMOKE CITY, Md. — Large numbers of young people who aren’t in school and don’t have a job used to be a problem that mostly afflicted America’s cities. But the share of “disconnected youth” in rural areas has soared over the past five years, overtaking the rate in urban areas and forcing state and local officials to look for new ways to help young people stay in school and get jobs.

Here in rural Worcester County, Maryland, a popular summer destination that includes Ocean City and other beach resorts, almost 25 percent of people 16 to 24 are unemployed and out of school, according to a recent state report.

That’s the highest rate in the state, higher even than in Baltimore, where about 20 percent of young people are disconnected. And it’s being felt hard in this quaint small town, where good seasonal jobs are 40 miles away and the nearest job-training program is about 25 miles away.

“Traditionally the perception has been that this is happening in urban areas and that’s where the funding and the research has taken place,” said Christina Church, a policy analyst in the Maryland Governor’s Office for Children. Areas like Worcester and nearby Caroline counties “have in some ways fallen through the cracks,” she said.

Nationwide, 4.9 million youth in all kinds of communities are disconnected, according to Measure of America, part of the nonprofit Social Science Research Council. Disconnected youth cost taxpayers as much as $93 billion a year in lost revenue and increased social service spending, according to Opportunity Nation, a coalition of nonprofits.

About 20 percent of young people in extremely rural areas — those like Worcester County with no cities larger than 10,000 people — were jobless and not in school, on average, over a five-year period, from 2010 to 2014, Measure of America said in a March report. That’s much higher than the rate for counties in urban centers (about 14 percent) or for suburban counties (12 percent).

“These vulnerable young people are cut off from the people, institutions, and experiences that would otherwise help them develop the knowledge, skills, maturity, and sense of purpose required to live rewarding lives as adults,” the Measure of America report concluded. “And the negative effects of youth disconnection ricochet across the economy, the social sector, the criminal justice system, and the political landscape, affecting us all.”

The election of President Donald Trump has drawn fresh attention to the plight of rural America.

On Wednesday, the National Governors Association called on Congress to restore funding to a federal program that provides funding to rural communities and school districts to help offset lost tax revenue from timber harvests on federal lands. Congress let the Secure Rural Schools program expire last year, and the governors said rural communities have struggled to absorb the unplanned cuts.

“We’re living now with some of the consequences of a bifurcated country,” said Patrick Carr, a Rutgers University sociologist who studies rural America. “It’s not good for America to have so many people disconnected.”

In some places, officials are taking steps to address the problem.

In California’s Silicon Valley, a partnership between Santa Clara County, the city of San Jose, and local schools and employers opened a “re-engagement center” about 18 months ago to help youth find jobs or enroll in college or high school in rural Gilroy. The distance between Gilroy and urban San Jose, about 30 miles, was an obvious problem for youth, said Nicky Ramos-Beban, interim principal for the centers.

A similar partnership called the Maine Youth Transition Collaborative is working with schools and employers to help people in foster care in rural areas stay in school or find jobs. The Connecticut Opportunity Project, in a September 2016 report, found “acute need in rural areas” of the state as well as struggling cities to help young people finish school, get jobs or both. Disconnected young people cost the state an estimated $900 million a year in uncollected taxes and spending on services and public safety, the report said.

In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, made lowering the disconnected rate a priority for the Office for Children in next year’s budget, mostly because it could save money in the long run, Church said.

“When youth reconnect with work and school, not only does spending on social services decrease, but also tax revenue and economic participation increase, which is good for the state’s bottom line,” Church said.

The Office for Children has asked counties, including Worcester, to propose plans to help solve the problem, such as dropout recovery programs, college prep courses, apprenticeships and job training. Proposals are due by the end of April to be considered for inclusion in the next state budget.

This story was produced by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts. You can view the original report on its website.