“Disconnected Youth” are young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither working nor in school.

Disconnected Youth: What’s The Big Deal?


There are currently around 270,000 youth between the ages of 16 and 24 across Hampton Roads. These are youth in transition to adult independence and the workforce. Most of us know or have known youth who seemed incredibly mature at 16 or 17. We also probably know youth who seem stuck in adolescence at 24 or 25. The truth is that this is probably perfectly normal. Science tells us that the adult brain (the part of the brain capable of self-control, long-term planning, deferred gratification, effective decision-making, emotional regulation, and self-awareness) does not fully develop until the mid to late twenties.

In very practical terms, this means is that about 30% of that population of over a quarter of a million youth will transition to adult independence and the workforce effectively through the traditional pathways of high school graduation, college and entry into the workforce. With strong family and financial support, these youth will become the 21st century workforce in Hampton Roads. Another 40% will also make that transition with some competence, though most families and many youth will admit to wishing they had better information and a more effective preparation for adult life. But around 17% of this population (around 45,900 youth) will struggle profoundly and 13% (around 35,100) won’t make it at all. They will become what we have come to call our “disconnected youth population.”

That’s nearly 46,000 youth at risk of disconnection and over 35,000 youth already disconnected or at high risk of disconnection. They will end up homeless, unemployed, and possibly even incarcerated. But even if they avoid incarceration and are marginally employed and tentatively sheltered they are not likely to be the kind or quality of workforce we need in Hampton Roads to be competitive in the 21st century. It doesn’t matter whether we claim these youth as our own or reject them as being someone else’s problem. The fate of these disconnected youth will impact everyone living in Hampton Roads in the years ahead.

A recent report from the Social Science Research Council titled “Zeroing In On Place and Race: Youth Disconnection in America’s Cities,” ranks Hampton Roads as 45th out of 98 metropolitan areas studied for disconnected youth as a percentage of overall youth population. While disconnection is a phenomenon that impacts more white youth overall, it disproportionately impacts black youth. In Hampton Roads 10.3% of white youth and 19.4% of black youth are disconnected.

“Zeroing in on place and Race” Read the report


Disconnection among youth is a significant challenge facing Hampton Roads. It’s a social services issue. It’s a taxpayer issue, It’s a criminal justice issue. It’s a workforce development and regional economic issue. It’s a human rights issue and a moral issue. As the baby boomer generation matures, can we really afford to not to pay attention to how the generation that will be supporting this aging class, is coming of age itself?

This is also an issue that is getting worse. Unemployment among young people is twice the rate of that of adults. Teens who used to learn about work and the workforce with summer service jobs and part time employment are no longer able to find those jobs when they are competing against older out-of-work Americans. What will we do with a significant portion of a generation of youth that is coming of age without exposure to the world of work?

What are the costs of disconnection? The human costs for 3 or more years of disconnection are quite profound and include a lower lifetime earning potential, chronic difficulty getting and keeping a job, chronic homelessness, becoming single parents and living in extreme poverty, lack of health insurance and erratic healthcare that strains the medical system, substance abuse, and chronic depression.

But there is also a very real financial cost. Each disconnected youth imposes an immediate taxpayer burden of $13,900 per year and an immediate social burden of $37,450 per year.

Taxpayer burden is everything that taxpayers will pay for in terms of services (lost tax revenue, criminal and corrections costs, healthcare and social welfare costs). Social burden is all other relevant costs (lost wages and productivity, higher health care and insurance costs, crime costs, marginal excess tax burden, etc.)*

A disconnected youth who reaches age 25 without effective intervention will impose a future lifetime taxpayer burden of $170,740 and a lifetime social burden of $529,030. Multiply that times the number of youth at-risk of disconnection in Hampton Roads and you have a six and a half billion dollar lifetime taxpayer burden and a twenty billion dollar lifetime social burden.

It’s very clear that doing nothing about disconnection just isn’t smart!



We know a surprising amount about what causes disconnection—what the risk factors are. A young person is at increasing risk of disconnection for every one of these factors:

  • In or exiting from foster care.
  • Not in school and lacking a high school diploma.
  • Not working or connected to the legitimate labor market.
  • Either homeless or with no fixed address.
  • If they are still in school, they are performing below grade level.
  • Living in high poverty families often headed by a single parent, possibly experiencing frequent family homelessness.
  • Alienated from families due to physical, sexual, or emotional abuse in the home.
  • Rejected by families because of sexual orientation.
  • Struggling to raise a child of their own.
  • Involvement with or at risk of sanction by the juvenile or adult criminal justice system.
  • Struggling with substance abuse.

disconnected youth

Improving Outcomes for Disconnected Youth



A certain amount of success in life comes down to luck and where and to whom you were born, but most successful people will also credit the knowledge they’ve acquired, the skills they’ve developed, and the experiences they’ve had. At risk youth may not have gotten the luck of the draw that some if us had, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to offset that with the kind of knowledge, skills, and experiences that promote success. This is where Together We Can—Smart Transitions comes into play.

Social research and scientific studies of early brain development suggested that timely intervention in early childhood education would have a significant impact on a youth’s progress through primary school and readiness for secondary school and higher learning. This was based on our understanding of a critical point in brain development from birth to around five years of age. Recent brain research indicates that far from being complete at age five, a young person’s brain experiences another significant development growth spurt between puberty and the age of twenty-four. This is the period in which the adult brain develops, and, just like in early childhood, if certain developmental experiences are missed, the development of a healthy and functional adult brain would be in jeopardy.

In Hampton Roads, the awareness of the critical period of brain development associated with early childhood galvanized the community and was adopted as an initiative known as Smart Beginnings. What the Together We Can Foundation is suggesting is a parallel initiative: Smart Transitions—to better address the needs of disconnected youth and youth at-risk of disconnection across Hampton Roads.

As a single agency we focus on the kind of intervention we do best: providing outstanding success skills classes and resource materials tailored to the needs of at-risk youth. These classes and resource materials are designed by a staff with years of curriculum development and educational and training experience working with at-risk teen populations. We focus on critical areas of adult work-life success:

  • career identification and alignment;
  • personal presentation and interviewing skills;
  • financial planning and real-world money management;
  • problem solving and relationship building skills; and
  • workforce readiness soft skills.

As a community partner, we work with community agencies serving at-risk youth populations. We partner with public schools, colleges, human services agencies, redevelopment and housing authorities, juvenile justice systems, and non profit organizations serving youth. We are also committed to working on big-picture advocacy and having a clear understanding of the scope of the problem of disconnection across Hampton Roads, as well as clearly defining success own the transition to adulthood.

Ultimately, we believe that every youth is an opportunity youth and every opportunity youth holds a piece of our future as a community.

TWC Smart Transitions Growth

Our numbers were down in 2020-21 due to the Covid 19 related shutdowns. We shifted to digital delivery of our classes quite quickly and effectively but this required smaller groups of youth at a time. We are currently back to serving youth mostly in person and expect to see our numbers of youth served bounce back to pre-Covid 19 numbers.

Because of community support from individual donors, municipalities, foundations and community organizations, we’ve gone from serving less than 50 youth per year to serving over 1,000 with high-impact, direct service (our staff providing the training and monitoring outcomes).

In addition we’ve distributed nearly 20,000 Smart Transitions Guides to youth across Hampton Roads. We’ve also provided training for youth program staff, educators, and mentors.