We’ve written for several years about “opportunity youth,” 16-24 year-olds who are neither in school nor working, and how this is one of the two key measurements for whether Memphis is making progress.

The other indicator is whether Memphis can improve its position as the city with the worst chance – 2.6% – for a child born into the bottom fifth in income to move to the top fifth.

Back to opportunity youth, five years ago, our friend, Dr. George Lord, researcher and former academic dean, was the first person who raised to us the importance of addressing the issue of opportunity youth in Memphis and the substantial economic advantage of moving these young people into the economic mainstream.

Those conversations were expanded by the work of our friends at Seeding Success, whose mission is to improve the educational outcomes for children and young people.  It may be largely working away from the headlines and below the radar, but the items on its agenda are some of the most important in Memphis and Shelby County.

To cap it off, a few weeks ago, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, in his weekly update, spotlighted the importance of these disconnected youth.

Do It In Your Own Self-Interest

It wasn’t just that this is an important issue for Memphis because of the need to expand the economy or to give every youth a fair chance at success in life.  Rather, the alarm was sounded because the Memphis MSA had a higher percentage of its 16-24 year-old population in the opportunity youth category than the other 50 largest metropolitan statistical areas.

There have been several reports since 2013 that have reiterated the fact that in the Memphis region, almost 20% of 16-24 year-olds are opportunity youth.  Meanwhile, a report for New Orleans showed that every reduction of 1% saved taxpayers $20 million yearly, and we suspect a similar benefit here.  As for Memphis, Dr. Lord suggested that the taxpayer burden for all opportunity youth was in excess of $389.2 million and the lifetime social burden came to $13.2 billion.

In other words, even though many people aren’t moved by the moral or religious or patriotic implications, reducing the number of opportunity youth falls clearly in the category of enlightened self-interest.  After all, reducing their number puts more money in cash registers in businesses all over the region, frees up tax dollars to be spent on other priorities, and reduces the unemployment rate.

While these troubling statistics for the Memphis region, when compared to our region’s peers, were enough to get our attention, we’ve wondered what the profile is for the opportunity youth in our community.

Thanks to Seeding Success, we now know.

The Profile

Executive Director Mark Sturgis and his talented staff, in cooperation with what they call the Opportunity Youth Collaborative Action Network (CAN), has issued a report that tells us more about these 16-24 year-olds than we have previously known.  The group’s name may sound a lot like a bureaucratic buzzword, but it’s all about action and working together to change things.

Mark Sturgis

Mark Sturgis








Members of the Opportunity Youth Collaborative Action Network are Boys & Girls Club (Technical Center), CoreFire at the Kroc, Goodwill Excel Center, Greater Memphis Alliance for a Competitive Workforce, Health Tech Institute of Memphis, Literacy Mid-South, Mediation and Restitution/Reconciliation Services, ResCare, Seedco, Workforce Investment Network, and Yowealth Academy.

In the U.S., there are 5.25 million “opportunity youth” and 29,830 of them live in the Memphis MSA (as of 2014).  Of that total, 8,013 are between 16 and 19 years old, and 21,817 are between 20 and 24 years old.

In other words, 18.7% of 16-24 year-olds are neither in school nor employed, and the breakdown by gender is 15.7% for females and 21.5% for males.  Fifty-nine percent of all opportunity youth total is male.

The racial breakdown shows that 23.8% of African American and Hispanic youths (20,543 and 1,826 persons respectively) are opportunity youth, compared to 12.3% of Caucasians (7,690 persons).

Better Job Opportunities

It’s no surprise that poverty has a strong association to opportunity youth: 23% percent are living at 0-50% of the federal poverty level; 24% are living 50-100% of federal poverty level; 16% are living 100-150% of poverty level; 11% are living 150-200% of federal poverty level, and 26% are 200% or above.

In the Cowen Institute’s report last October in New Orleans, it found that female opportunity youth had children at twice the rate of all female 16-24 year-olds.  Also, one-fifth of opportunity youth there have some college experience and 74% had no income in the past year.

Tulane University’s Cowen Institute has led the research and evaluation about opportunity youth, and three years ago, it launched a program that impressed us: the Earn and Learn Career Pathways Program.  During the yearlong program, the opportunity youth are employed and are paid by Tulane while also receiving skills training through the Accelerating Career Education program at Delgado Community College.

The Earn and Learn program trains 16-24 year-olds for jobs in high-growth, livable wage industries.  It’s that emphasis on jobs that pay decent salaries that is intriguing, because too often, here, we plug newly trained workers into a market dominated by low-skill, low-wage jobs that often act as disincentives for workers to stick with it.  In particular, the New Orleans program shortened the time to get a postsecondary credential.

While this and other programs in New Orleans are interesting, what is most impressive is the degree to which Tulane University, a private, research universities with 13,500 students, is engaged in the development and execution of opportunity youth programs.  It’s further evidence how the university stepped up its impact post-Hurricane Katrina and has become even more of a model of academic leadership.

Keeping Perspective

Back to Memphis, the Seeding Success report listed “best, exemplary, and promises practices” that included listening to opportunity youth to learn firsthand of their needs, experiences, and challenges; locate resource and service centers in communities where the youth are located;  connect a youth with an adult to provide support through a one-on-one relationship; tailor classes that respond directly to individual needs; offer better skills development aligned with actual jobs and the teaching of “soft skills”; work with local employers for job opportunities and engage them in developing solutions; improve accountability (we can’t find an annual report in a city with a high number of opportunity youth that reports on its rate of success and number of program participants; and identify and scale up effective programs.

The good news is that there are Memphis programs with proven track records of success, but frequently, they are touching only a small percentage of the total youth who need intervention and support.  Because of it, the need to scale up programs to touch more youth has to be a top priority, and that is what the Opportunity Youth CAN plans to do.  In addition, next steps include data sharing, a one-stop-shop for these youth, and applying for a grant from Aspen Institute.

We’ve written before that in tackling our challenges in Memphis, there is a tendency to wring our hands, excuse ourselves from action because our challenges are so much worse than anyone else’s, and to magnify the negative while dismissing the positive.


So, while we have to address in serious ways the issue of opportunity youth in the Memphis region, let’s also remember that while 29,830 16-24 year-olds are neither in school nor working, there are 56,244 of their counterparts who are enrolled in school; there are 31,904 of their peers who are enrolled in school and are working, and there are 41,624 16-24 year-olds who are not in school but are working.

It says to us that while we all have to set opportunity youth as priorities, we can’t lose sight of the fact that for every one of them, there are 4.4 youths who are working, in school, or both.

At a time when the news media, especially television news, suggests that every youth in Memphis is a threatening presence, we should keep in mind that many times more of them are doing the best they can to get ahead, and that many of them do it in environments in which it would be understandable if they throw in the towel and give up.

In that way, while we have serious problems that we have to confront honestly and with vigor, we should pause often along the way to celebrate those young people who defy the odds to stay on a positive course for the future.  They should inspire us all…and especially their peers who are neither in school nor working.


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