Half a Million Halfway There: Young Southerners Not in School or Work

A recent update to the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Book shows that 1.3 million youth ages 16-19 in the U.S. were disconnected from both work and school in 2014. That’s a national disconnection rate of 7 percent. In all Southern states except Virginia, the rate is at the national average or higher:


Source: Kids Count

In total, nearly half a million youth ages 16-19 in the South were disconnected from both work and school in 2014:


Source: Kids Count


U.S. youth disconnection also is higher than average for OECD countries, as shown below.

What’s a NEET, you ask? That’s the UK acronym for young people that are Not in Education, Employment or Training. Wherever you are, a delay in high school graduation, postsecondary study, and employment can have life-long consequences, so national and local governments are investing in a variety of programs to get these youth on track. In the UK, that means apprenticeship grants and wage incentives for businesses that employ young people; sector-based work academies that offer training, work experience, and a guaranteed job interview; funding for local initiatives that support education; and training for these young people. In the South, we see some similar efforts, like the South Carolina Technical College System’s Apprenticeship Carolina initiative; All In Brownsville that is, among other things, increasing the college application rate of the Texas town’s high schoolers; and local partnerships like Made in Durham that are linking educators and employers to help young people stay connected.

But efforts like these are operating in a South that still doesn’t have enough good jobs. Poor labor market opportunities are hitting our young people—particularly our young people of color—the hardest: 27 percent of black 20- to 24-year-olds, and 14 percent of white 20- to 24-year-olds, are unemployed—twice the levels for workers 25 and older. And even if employed, those without education struggle to get ahead: in the South, the median income of high school graduates is $26,500; for people with some college, $32,299; and for four-year graduates, $48,317. All the more reason that we need to build an Infrastructure of Opportunity—the systems that provide pathways to opportunity and re-connection efforts—to ensure access to education, employment, and training for all the young folks on that map.

Quality STEM Jobs: Who Is Getting Them?

We’ve got some STEMpathy if you’re kind of over stories about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs, and the education and training required to get them. But there’s a good reason for all (or at least most) of those stories: employment in STEM occupations tends to be higher-wage and higher-growth than other occupations. With startlingly low economic mobility for young people in the South, STEM jobs could provide new pathways into stable careers.

In many Southern metros, STEM employment makes up a significant portion of the workforce. According to Bloomberg Business, in Austin, Huntsville, Raleigh, Durham, the figure is at least 10 percent:

STEM jobs

Source: Bloomberg Business

These jobs typically pay better than many occupations, and they are more likely to have the characteristics that allow for economic security and wealth building, like paid sick and family leave, health insurance, and retirement accounts. The gap between median pay in STEM occupations and non-STEM occupations is substantial in many Southern metros:

STEM pay

Source: Bloomberg Business

The prevalence of these jobs in certain areas is not based just on luck; they are areas that have seen sustained investment in innovation and education over time. From Bloomberg Business descriptions of Huntsville and Durham:

Like many high-tech locales, Huntsville owes its 21st century economy to an initial burst of funding for government research. It was a town of 16,000 residents working in cotton mills and on watercress farms when, in 1950, the U.S. Army relocated a team of rocket scientists to Redstone Arsenal, a local installation that produced chemical munitions during World War II. In the decades that followed, NASA designed, assembled, and tested the rockets that put the first men on the moon. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and dozens of lesser-known aerospace and defense companies have swarmed to Huntsville.


Durham, N.C., has a STEM labor force that’s 13.9 percent of all workers. Its biotech economy started with a sprawling research park that began to grow around the same time that Huntsville’s high-tech transformation was getting started.

The Bloomberg author notes that these jobs pay good salaries and those salaries support other draws—like good public schools, restaurants, and arts and entertainment that make the communities appealing to potential employers and potential workers.

Job growth doesn’t happen automatically, and it’s happening less and less through traditional industrial recruitment. STEM jobs are growing in the places where there’s been investment in the services, amenities, and institutions that support those sectors, and particularly in places with a highly educated workforce or the ability to attract one.

These occupations are typically high-skill and require targeted training and education, but the majority are going to populations that are the most likely to connect with high-wage work anyway: white men. Women and people of color are underrepresented in STEM fields. Women make up less than a third of all STEM employment in every Southern state:

STEM women

Source: IWPR’s Status of Women in the States

Southern cities that are seeking to take advantage of STEM job growth must make sure that the pathways into those jobs are strong and equitable. We have to consider what barriers, both real and perceived, are preventing women and people of color from pursuing those careers in greater numbers.

As the Institute for Women’s Policy and Research found, women are significantly less likely than men to get degrees in STEM fields, and the proportion of women receiving associate’s degrees in STEM fields decreased between 2001 and 2009:

STEM gender

Source: IWPR

Though these data show a significant gender gap, community colleges are an important part of the pathway to STEM careers for both women and men, as detailed in an article this week by Lane Florsheim in Marie Claire magazine. More than half of people who receive bachelor’s degrees or higher in a STEM field completed some of their coursework at a community college, including 55 percent of women (63 percent of women with young children) and 44 percent of men.

Florsheim cites research that suggests community colleges are often more accessible and inviting to women interested in these fields:

… a recent study by two Iowa State University researchers found that women at community colleges reported a friendlier atmosphere in STEM-related classes than at four-year colleges. “It is just such a global community,” one student said of her community college experience. The researchers found that similarity in backgrounds and lifestyles made women feel more comfortable stepping into leadership roles in activities and assignments. Strong advising and support from faculty also marked a major difference. Since so many students transfer out, they often work closely with guidance counselors to develop transfer plans. “The two-year plan keeps me focused, and saved me with financial aid,” another woman said.

That welcoming atmosphere, where women and people of color are encouraged and expected to thrive instead of being seen as unusual, must be sustained at community colleges and created at other educational institutions. It hasn’t always been so unusual: computer programming was once thought of as women’s work, but it became overwhelmingly male starting in the mid-1980s as stereotypes about gender and computer science shifted:

Comp sci grads

Source: NPR

Stereotyped messages about who “belongs” in a field matter to young people who are trying to envision themselves in careers.

Holding that vision is difficult to do while women in corporate leadership, especially tech corporate leadership, are few and far between. Only 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs (women make up 15 percent of C-level executives and 17 percent of board members, even though research shows that boards with women tend to outperform board without women). A TechCrunch analysis of 84 “unicorn” companies, or U.S. software or internet-oriented companies that are backed by venture capital and valued at more than $1 billion, found that only two CEOs are women, 30 percent have no women in senior leadership, and approximately 70 percent do not have women on their boards.  And a Fortune analysis of 191 major U.S. venture capital firms—the crucial backers of tech innovation—found that only 5.6 percent of decision-makers and 10 percent of all investment professionals were women.

The power of these stereotypes is seen in a study of academia that found fields that prioritize brilliance and raw talent tend to have lots of white men in them, while fields that emphasize the importance of hard work tend to have larger percentages of women and people of color. Unconscious bias influences who we think of as brilliant and talented—if you don’t look like the typical applicant, then the employer may not be as able to see your unique talent. Women make up 20 percent or less of PhDs in physics, engineering, and computer science; it’s understandable that young women may not see STEM fields as welcoming for either education or employment.

For the Southern economy to thrive, our workforce needs the skills to compete in the global economy and emerging fields—and we need those skills be to accessible to a broad range of workers, including women and people of color. STEM skills will often be highly technical and specialized, requiring both postsecondary training and job-based experience. Developing equitable education and hiring systems can help us shift patterns of economic mobility and ensure that more Southerners can connect to living-wage careers.

Economic Insecurity in the South

Last week the Census Bureau released new data on income, poverty, health insurance, and inequality. Here are some quick insights on economic insecurity in the South.


The South has the lowest median household income in the nation, and black and Latino households have the lowest incomes in the region:

Median Household Income by region and race or ethnicity, 2014
All White, not Hispanic or Latino Black alone Asian alone Hispanic or Latino, any race
Northeast  $ 59,210  $ 65,762  $ 39,332  $ 78,408  $ 37,456
Midwest  $ 54,267  $ 59,171  $ 31,611  $ 62,480  $ 41,758
South  $ 49,655  $ 55,888  $ 35,306  $ 75,859  $ 42,091
West  $ 57,688  $ 63,869  $ 37,246  $ 74,718  $ 45,636
Source: Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic (ASEC) Supplement

When looking at the distribution of people in each region by national income quintiles, we see that the South is overrepresented in lower quintiles and underrepresented in upper income quintiles:

Percentage of people in each income quintile by region, 2014


(If the distribution of incomes in each region matched the national distribution, there would be 20 percent of people in each quintile.)

Given the region’s comparatively large population (around 37 percent of the US population) and the overrepresentation of low-income people, the South has 42 percent of U.S. people in the lowest income quintile. The South only has 34 percent of people in the highest income quintile. For young people starting out on the lowest rungs of the income ladder in the South, the chances of climbing it as an adult are smaller than in any other region.


The poverty rate is higher in the South than in other regions, and its geographic distribution is different. While the poverty rate is highest in cities in the three other regions, in the South, it is almost as high in non-metro areas as it is in cities:

Poverty rate by region and type of place of residence, 20142

Most Southern cities are less dense than the old, industrial cities of the Midwest and Northeast. In sprawling metros, residential economic and racial segregation influences school quality, housing options, and transportation, and a disconnect often exists between low- and moderate-income neighborhoods and the location of good jobs. While the South’s rate of suburban poverty is lower than the poverty rate inside cities or in rural areas, it is growing, and many of our strategies to improve connections to opportunity often overlook suburban and exurban high-poverty neighborhoods.

Even in the South’s most prosperous cities, the chances of a low-income young person making it to a middle- or high-income career are depressingly low. The Raleigh, Charlotte, and Atlanta metros are ranked among the nation’s best for business, but they have some of the lowest levels of youth economic mobility. Concentrated poverty often exists side-by-side with concentrated affluence, and our systems of educational and economic opportunity often reflect those disparities in their resource allocation and quality.

Because low-income people of color are more likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods than low-income white people, concentrated poverty helps to perpetuate racial inequities. The South has a high rate of poverty across racial and ethnic groups:

Poverty rate by race and ethnicity by region, 20143

Ideally, all young people would have equitable economic outcomes regardless of their family’s socioeconomic status, their neighborhood, or their race and ethnicity. As data show, however, race specifically remains a significant factor in the educational and economic outcomes of individuals across the South, and the city and neighborhood a young person grows up in has real consequences for her quality of life and chances of educational and economic success.

Health Insurance

The South has the highest rates of uninsured people in the U.S. for all racial and ethnic groups. One in four Hispanic or Latino people in the South are uninsured:

Percentage of people not covered by health insurance at any time during the year, 20144

As we said in a recent blog post: “the tide of healthcare coverage is rising, but individual social determinants of health (age, race, socioeconomic status, place, gender, disability status, etc.) often overlap to keep folks from being able to ’float‘ to the same level of access and quality.” Health care access is still determined by those social and economic factors, and people without coverage are often stuck in a cycle of economic insecurity and low mobility.


You might have heard us say this before: the South has the highest level of inequality in the nation, with the Northeast as a close second:

Gini Coefficient, 2014
All 0.480
Northeast 0.487
Midwest 0.461
South 0.488
West 0.474
Source: Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic (ASEC) Supplement

Low mobility is a problem on its own, but with a backdrop of rising income inequality and rising wealth inequality, the stakes are higher than ever, and your economic situation at birth is increasingly important.

Why the South Matters

The South has the highest rates of economic insecurity, and our young people also have the lowest chances of upward economic mobility in the nation. Unless we can find a way to shift the opportunity landscape in this region, we have little hope of changing these patterns. In the State of the South report, we proposed that the South must build an infrastructure of opportunity, or a clear and deliberate set of pathways and supports that connect youth and young adults to postsecondary credentials and economic opportunity regardless of background.

The infrastructure of opportunity is about more than just lifting up young people who are growing up in poverty—it’s about investing in opportunity for all young people so the community has a strong foundation for long-term success. The places that have better outcomes for low- and middle-income young people tend to have better outcomes for high-income young people, too (see Equality of Opportunity Project), indicating that the types of resources, systems, and investments that matter for the economic and educational success of young people are beneficial across the board.

MDC typically defines the South as 13 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.  The Census Bureau defines the South as those thirteen states plus Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Oklahoma.

Same as It Ever Was: Why Desegregation Still Matters in the South

It’s no secret: the quality of a child’s education is one of the most important factors in her future success. It’s also no secret that educational quality varies widely between schools and between districts, and that inequitable residential segregation and school funding formulas often concentrate students from low-wealth families in lower quality schools. The rate of poverty for public school students, like the overall poverty rate, differs across regions, states, and school districts, but it is generally higher in the South. EdBuild recently mapped the poverty rates in school districts nationally. In the map below, those areas in light blue are the ones where the student poverty rate is less than 10 percent and dark blue areas are more than 40 percent:

South school poverty

Source: EdBuild

School poverty varies widely district to district, and in many areas districts with high levels of poverty are located right next to ones with lower levels. In places where countywide school districts were never formed, like Birmingham, Ala., you see that intense contrast:

Birmingham school poverty

Source: EdBuild

The EdBuild map doesn’t tell us about the concentration of poverty at schools within districts, but other research does. In the South especially, school quality follows patterns of residential segregation by economic status and race. A recent Urban Institute study examined concentration of poverty in schools and found that a student from a low-income family is six times as likely as one from a high-income family to attend a high-poverty school. The study also found that students of color are far more likely to attend high-poverty schools—in the case of black students, six times more likely than white students to attend high-poverty schools. In Durham County, N.C., where 61 percent of students are from low-income families, 36 percent of black students attend high-poverty schools, while only 6 percent of white students do. In Jefferson County, Ala., where Birmingham is located, 65 percent of black students attend high-poverty schools, while only 2 percent of white students do.

While the South was less segregated than the rest of the nation during the 1980s and early 1990s, by 2009, Southern levels of segregation had risen quickly enough to catch up with the nation:

Segregation chart

Source: Southern Slippage report from UCLA

The problem is not really about the concentration of low-wealth students—it’s the concentration of wealth. In a new episode of This American Life that you absolutely need to listen to, Nikole Hannah-Jones notes that school desegregation cut the national achievement gap between black and white students in half in less than two decades (it has widened again since 1988, when segregation began to increase). She explains:

It’s important to point out that it is not that something magical happens when black kids sit in a classroom next to white kids. It’s not that suddenly a switch turns on and they get intelligence or wanting, you know, the desire to learn when they’re with white kids. What integration does is it gets black kids in the same facilities as white kids, and therefore, it gets them access to the same things that white kids get: quality teachers and quality instruction.

We’ve talked a lot on this blog about the importance of where a person lives to educational and economic success, but that point requires context: where you live is often not about choice. Intentional policies and practices actively created residential segregation by race. Sean Reardon of the Stanford Graduate School of Education found that middle-class black families tend to live in lower-wealth neighborhoods than low-income white families:

NYT neighborhood inc

Source: NYT

While the economic resources of families matter tremendously to educational success (there’s a linear relationship between income and who goes to college: with each increase in the family income distribution, the rate of college attendance increases the same amount), low-wealth young people in some areas are much more successful than low-wealth young people in others. The place a young person lives in and the resources available there determine the type of opportunities and the quality of the person’s preparation for them. That’s why, as Peter Edelman points out (h/t Dylan Matthews), reforms to improve and equalize school quality are a necessary complement to antipoverty efforts:

There is a bogus debate going on that pits school reform against antipoverty advocates. School reformers, wanting to squelch teachers and others who have said over the years that they cannot teach children who come to school with multiple problems that stem from poverty, say (correctly) that there are no valid excuses for failing to teach low-income children. They point (as they could not until quite recently) to multiple examples of schools that excel in teaching low-income children. But to the extent they say or imply that reducing poverty now is somehow less important than school reform, they overstate their point. Antipoverty advocates, for their part, in some instances downplay the independent efficacy of school reform.


The real answer, quite obviously, is that both school reform and serious antipoverty policies are vital. Better schools in inner cities, both charters and traditional public schools, are crucial to children’s possibilities of having a better life. But far more inner-city children will succeed in school if their parents have better jobs and higher incomes and if the communities in which they are growing up are healthy. There is no either-or here. Good schools are a must for inner-city children, but they cannot achieve maximum effect unless the schools strategy is part of a larger antipoverty approach.

It may seem like an obvious point that both are important, but in an era of scarce public investment, we often overlook it. Poverty is not an intractable problem, and students from low-wealth families are not doomed, but we talk as though they are. School desegregation both narrowed the achievement gap and dramatically improved the intergenerational mobility of black students in the South. We know that mobility is higher in places with quality schools and lower levels of residential segregation. In those places, both low-wealth and affluent students have better outcomes. Despite all this, there is very little acknowledgement of the importance of desegregating schools. “We have this thing that we know works, that the data shows works, that we know is best for kids, and we won’t talk about it,” says Nikole Hannah-Jones. “It’s not even on the table.”

Family Economic Status Influences Educational Attainment

According to a longitudinal study from the National Center for Education Statistics, high-achieving students from low-income families are as likely to complete a bachelor’s degree as students from affluent families with below average scores.

Did you catch that?

The study follows a group of 2002 high school sophomores to learn about patterns of educational progress, degree completion, and aspirations. The study shows a dramatic difference in attainment by a student’s socioeconomic status (SES), which considers the income, education level, and occupation of parents:


Source: NCES

Sixty percent of high SES students have a bachelor’s degree at the end of the study period, while only 14 percent of low SES students do.

This class disparity in educational attainment isn’t surprising, and it is likely the result of many factors, including the growing achievement gap by income level. But this study also lets us see the different outcomes for students of the same achievement levels:


Source: NCES

Only forty-one percent of high-achieving low SES students get a bachelor’s degree—the same percentage as high SES students with scores in the second lowest quartile. Degree completion is even more unequal than college enrollment. There’s even a racial attainment gap for students in the middle and upper socio-economic group:

Percentage of students who completed a bachelor’s or higher degree by 2012           
  White Black Hispanic
Low SES 14.4 12.6 12.6
Middle SES 32.9 18.5 18.8
High SES 63.2 42.5 44.6

Source: NCES

This disparity is consistent with data on the racial wealth gap, which persists across income and educational levels, and directly impacts postsecondary options. (Philip N. Cohen notes the decrease in educational aspirations of students between sophomore and senior year of high school, particularly for low SES students: “That’s a big crushing of expectations that happened in the formative years at the end of high school.”)

These dramatic differences in degree completion are a problem for economic mobility in the South, because as we’ve said before, educational attainment remains a key determinant of who is employed and who is not, and who earns a good living and who does not across the region. A young person’s chances of moving up the economic ladder go up if they have a college degree: 47 percent of children born in the bottom quintile who don’t get a degree stay in the lowest quintile as an adult, while only 10 percent of children born in the lowest income quintile who graduate from college remain in that quintile as adults. Even with a college degree, almost 40 percent of those who start in the lowest quintile move up just one quintile, meaning a college degree often doesn’t put low-income young people on solid economic ground. (The same can be said for young black college graduates: in 2013, the unemployment rate for college graduates between the ages of 22 and 27 was 5.6 percent. For black college graduates in that same age range, the rate was 12.4 percent.)

While improving educational attainment for low-income Southerners alone won’t solve our economic mobility issues, it is unquestionably a vital step for the future of our region. Unfortunately, Southern states are decreasing per-pupil spending for K-12 and higher education, and in many places, school quality is increasingly varied and tied to new types of segregation. It’s time for the South to assess how our education systems sort and sift young people unfairly, and to design an infrastructure of opportunity that connects young adults to educational credentials and economic opportunity regardless of their economic situation at birth.