Arizona’s Disconnected Youth

Beatriz Del Campo-Carmona, Research Economist

Arizona has a high percentage of disconnected youth compared to other western states. Young people who are neither employed nor attending school are considered disconnected. Included are teenagers in the age range of 16–19 and young adults from 20-24. The term “opportunity youth” is another name used interchangeably for disconnected youth. The report “Disconnected geography: A spatial analysis of disconnected youth in the United States” concluded that a large group of young people at risk of becoming disconnected are those who need additional social support, including those with disabilities, learning needs, language/communication disorders, and a broad spectrum of those identified with social/emotional needs, individuals whose first language is not the language commonly used in the state or who are not bilingual, and young asylum seekers who lack cultural and social capital.

In 2020, 6.8% of U.S. teenagers between 16 and 19 years old were neither working nor in school. That represented 1.15 million young Americans. Arizona had a disconnection rate of 8.2%, the third highest among the 10 western states. Nevada posted the highest youth disconnection rate at 9.9%, while Colorado had the lowest at only 6.3%. Compared to 12 peer western Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs), Tucson was near the middle of the pack, with 6.8% of its youth considered disconnected. Within Arizona, Mohave County had the highest youth disconnection rate (15.9%) and Coconino County the lowest (2.9%). Figure 1 shows the youth disconnection rate for select states and MSAs.

Figure 1: Youth Disconnection Rates by State and MSAs (16-19 Years Old ) 2020

The youth disconnection rate rises when we extend the range to 18 to 24 years old. According to the NCES (National Center for Education Statistics), in 2021, the percentage who were neither enrolled in school nor working in the U.S. was 16.4%. In contrast, the 2010 youth disconnection rate was 19.2%. That represents a drop of nearly three percentage points over a ten-year span, which translates to roughly 800k additional young people with access to pathways that lead to happier and more independent adulthoods1.

Why is it important?

Disconnection from the educational system and labor market during these age ranges might be discouraging and harmful to young adults. Research from The Social Science Journal in 2019 shows that youth disconnection has profound negative consequences for substance use, mental health, and later life earnings.

Youth disconnection is a strong indicator of a community’s potential and a barometer of its residents’ access to opportunity. It correlates with a region’s well-being and the nation’s economy. The cost of youth disconnection for society was estimated by Measure of America, a program of the Social Science Research Council, which concluded in a recent report that if the total number of disconnected youth were reconnected, the federal government would receive an estimated additional $55 billion in tax revenue per year; that’s $11,900 per year per reconnected individual.

Additionally, another recent Measure of America report, found that disconnection is correlated with lower incomes, higher unemployment rates, poverty, worse health condition, and an increased likelihood of relying on government support, and engaging in criminal activity.

Earning a high school diploma or alternative credentials is a proven, first step towards a prosperous future, as shown by the strong correlation between higher education and job security in Updates on Tucson’s labor market article (see Figure 5).

How do we compare?

According to the NCES, in 2020 the overall “status dropout rate” (defined as the percentage of 16- to 24-year-olds who are not enrolled in high school and lack a high school credential) for the U.S. was 5.3%. The status dropout rate in the U.S. increased from 2.0 to 5.6% for 16-year-olds between 2010 and 2020. It also increased from 3.5 to 5.8% for 17-year-olds. There was no measurable change in status dropout rates during this period for 18-year-olds. On the other hand, dropout rates declined from 7.9 to 5.2% for 19-year-olds and from 9.3 to 5.1% for 20-to-24-year-olds between 2010 and 2020. Figure 2 illustrates the national status dropout rates by age between 2010 and 2020. 

Figure 2: National Status Dropout Rates of 16-To-24-Year-Olds, by Age: 2010 and 2020

In 2020, girls and young women in the U.S. were less likely to be disconnected than boys, with 6.1% and 7.5% disconnection rates, respectively. The state of Idaho posted the largest difference in youth disconnection rates by gender. For those aged 16-19, the youth disconnection rate for males was 8.1%; while the rate for females was substantially lower at 5.5%. The state of Arizona followed a similar trend, with a youth disconnection rate of 9.0% for males and 7.3% for females. While all peer metropolitan areas posted lower disconnection rates for females than males, Tucson exhibited the widest gap among peer MSAs in favor of females (3.4 percentage point difference), indicating that the latter is significantly less disconnected than males. Figure 3 displays the youth disconnection by gender (U.S., Arizona, and MSAs).

Figure 3: Youth Disconnection Rates by Gender: U.S, States, and MSAs (16-19 Years Old ) 2020

The rates of disconnected youth vary by race and ethnicity across the country. A report published by Measure of America titled “A Disrupted Year: How the Arrival of Covid-19 Affected Youth Disconnection” found that Native American youth were more likely to be disconnected from school and work (23.4%). The state of New Mexico, with a reported rate of disconnection of 32.9% among young Native Americans, was the highest in the nation. This was followed closely by Utah (32.5%) and Arizona (30.9%). Black/African American teens and young adults had the second-highest disconnection rate in the U.S. at 19.6%. Nevada posted the highest rate of youth disconnection among Blacks/African Americans at 27.8%, and Oregon the lowest at 14.6%.

Of the geographies tracked on the MAP, all MSAs and nine states reported youth disconnection rates that were higher for young Hispanics and Latinos when compared to white, non-Hispanic youth. The state of Colorado reported the largest gap between these two groups, at 6.4 percentage points higher for young Hispanics and Latinos. Utah posted the smallest gap with only a 0.5 percentage point difference. Among tracked western MSAs, San Antonio posted the largest gap between these two groups (8.4 percentage point difference), and Austin had the smallest gap (1.6 percentage point difference). Figure 4 shows the youth disconnection rate by race (U.S., states, and MSAs).

Figure 4: Youth Disconnection Rates by Race: U.S., States, and MSAs (16-24 Years Old ) 2020

One consequence of youth disconnection is an increased probability of currently or eventually living in poverty. According to "Data for Persons Defined as Disadvantaged Youth and Adults (2011-2015)" by the Employment and Training Administration (ETA), U.S. Department of Labor, the rate of 16- to 21-year-olds living in poverty or earning less than 70% of the Lower Living Standard Income Level in the U.S. was 11.2%. Among western states, Utah posted the largest percentage of youth living in poverty at 13.2%, Nevada posted the smallest at 9.9%, and Arizona was in the middle of the range at 11.0% (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Poverty Rates for the Disconnected Youth Population (2011-2015)

Among young workers aged 14 to 24 in Tucson, 28.8% worked in the accommodation and food services sector during 2020. That was higher than the state (26.7%) and the U.S. (24.4%). An additional 20.0% worked in the retail sector. The health care and social assistance sector represented 12.7% of jobs held by Tucson’s 14- to 24-year -olds. The percentage of youth workers employed in the professional and business service sector was considerably higher in Arizona and the Tucson MSA, at 9.3%, compared to the U.S. (6.8%). Figure 6 highlights the share of employment for younger workers in Tucson by industry. Click on the drop-down menu to view Arizona or the U.S.

Figure 6: Employment Sectors for Younger Workers Age 14 to 24 (2020)

As illustrated in Figure 7, the prevalence of disconnected youth decreased between 2010 and 2015 for all western states and in seven of the 12 MSAs. During the 2015 to 2020 timeframe, disconnection rates in 10 western states continued to decline, and only San Antonio posted an increase from 7.9% to 8.5%.

The Las Vegas MSA reported a substantial decrease in disconnected youth between 2010 and 2020, dropping from 13.2% to 9.9%. The disconnected youth rate for Arizona decreased from 10.7% to 8.2% (a 2.5 percentage point difference, the highest among western states) between 2010 and 2020, while nationally the rate declined from 8.2% to 6.8%. The Tucson MSA also posted a decrease in disconnected youth from 8.8% to 6.8% within the same period.

Figure 7: Youth Disconnection Rates Trend, 16-19 Years Old (2010-2020)

Youth Unemployment During the COVID-19 Pandemic

One of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic was the growth of the unemployment rate among young people. According to W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, before the pandemic, approximately one out of eight young people between the ages of 18 and 24 were disconnected. In contrast, in April 2020 the disconnection rate increased dramatically due to a reduction in full-time work and school enrollment. A similar impact was felt in Arizona. According to Opportunities for Youth (OFY), in December 2019, 11.9% of youth ages 16-24 were disconnected from work and school in the Greater Phoenix Metro Area (GPMA). By May 2020, that figure had jumped to 25.6% or 144,551 youth. 

Since 2010, the youth unemployment rate in Arizona fell quicker than the national rate until 2017, when both met at 9.2%. In early 2020, during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the youth unemployment rate grew abruptly by 6.7 percentage points nationally (up to 15.1%) and by 6.2 percentage points in Arizona (up to 15.4%) relative to late 2019. The youth employment rate rapidly declined to pre-pandemic levels nationally and in Arizona between 2020 and 2021 to respective rates of 9.7% and 8.7%. That marked the first time in 11 years that the youth unemployment rate in Arizona was lower than the national average. Figure 8 highlights the youth unemployment rate in the U.S. and Arizona (2010-2021).

Figure 8: Youth Unemployment Rate Age 16 to 24 (2010-2021)

What's Next?

Since the Great Recession, states and local governments have expanded their efforts to develop programs to serve disconnected youth. One example is the Opportunity Youth Forum (OYF), a program of the Aspen Institute, whose mission is to improve the success and well-being of youth through increased education and workforce attainment. The OYF is a network of place-based urban, suburban, rural and tribal community collaboratives, all working to improve outcomes for youth. Among those member communities, Youth on the Rise (YOTR) is leading the way in helping young adults attain important life outcomes in Pima County. One of its projects is the YOTR re-engagement app, which provides a guide for youth to navigate services, resources, and other information, and can be personalized by age (16-24), gender, and Zip code. The last 10 years in the state of Arizona and in the Tucson MSA have been marked by a significant decrease in youth disconnection, and these community incentives are a mechanism to continue improving this critical indicator. 


1 Lewis, Kristen. A Disrupted Year: How the Arrival of Covid-19 Affected Youth Disconnection. New York: Measure of America, Social Science Research Council, 2022