STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We've been reporting this summer on youth unemployment. Today, we focus on young people who do find work but in ways that may hold them back because they go to work instead of school. The young people are in Langley Park, Maryland. It's an immigrant community filled by waves of newcomers to the United States, most recently from Central America. Langley Park is the focus of research by the Urban Institute. Researcher Molly Scott spoke with groups of young people and their parents. One question is why fewer than half of local kids graduate from high school.
MOLLY SCOTT: Kids, when they get to middle school and high school, they start to get lost because the environments are really large. And particularly if you are an immigrant kid, some of the gaps that you might have in language acquisition - other things - only get bigger as you progress through the school system. But another factor I think that is really important, particularly when we talk about the youth unemployment dynamic, is that, you know, these families are really struggling to get by for a lot of reasons. And we know that immigrant families are underserved by the federal safety net and youth employment is one of many strategies that families can use to stay afloat. If you're a parent, an immigrant parent from Central America, you're looking at all the people in your household. The youth are the folks who have often the highest level of education in the family, even if it's only ninth or tenth grade. They're English proficient and they don't have ambiguous legal status. And so if you're trying to figure out how to make ends meet, that seems like a really rational choice.
INSKEEP: And so they end up making this decision to drop out of school. You're saying that's happening a lot of the time.
SCOTT: Right. We stumbled across this trend, I would say, in the neighborhood. And we went looking for that disconnected youth statistic - the kids that are not working and not in school...
SCOTT: ...Because that's what we mostly see, right?
SCOTT: And what we found was really surprising because the rates of disconnected youth were really comparable to national averages.
INSKEEP: So that's not the problem.
SCOTT: That's not the problem. But what we saw was that the rate of kids who were working and not in school was four times the national average.
INSKEEP: What kinds of jobs are young people doing, the ones in your focus groups anyway?
SCOTT: In addition to sort of your traditional low-wage work, right, in the service industry, there is a lot of marginal employment in the neighborhood. You know, landscaping, construction, things that may be on or off the books.
INSKEEP: Now, it sounds like you're saying it's not only that the family needs young people to get out and work, but that some young people may be quite uncomfortable in school because of language differences, cultural differences or other differences?
SCOTT: Right, that's something that we definitely heard. One of the girls told a story about how when she left her country of origin, she was in advanced math. And she was placed in remedial math because her English skills were not like native-born speakers, right? There was a lot of talk about, you know, the culture of low expectations for folks who are English language learners.
INSKEEP: How did she end up feeling in that situation? Was she bored at the same time she was frustrated?
SCOTT: Of course. And this is actually a girl who rebounded well and adapted well and was able to progress very successfully. But there are a lot of kids who are not like her. You know, kids start school behind in preschool because of language issues and other things. But they do remarkably well in elementary school. They're on par with their peers and that's really a testament to the great way that these families wrap around these kids and support them when they're little. But the problem is that there's such a steep drop-off when you get to middle school and then high school, they face these pressures, right?
INSKEEP: And the family cannot be as supportive?
SCOTT: I think there's just a lot of strong economic realities.
INSKEEP: So you were looking in this neighborhood that had a heavy concentration of Latino immigrants, specifically Central American immigrants. You listen to these young people and their parents, and then you go away from that neighborhood Langley Park, outside of Washington, D.C.
INSKEEP: Did it change the way you were looking at the rest of the United States?
SCOTT: You know, this whole concept of youth employment filling an economic necessity is really kind of not on the table as a topic for discussion. And yet, you know, we know that with the recession and any number of economic challenges that we face as a nation, this can be something that can be coming up for a lot of kids.
INSKEEP: You know, as you talk, I'm remembering that getting your hands around child labor in much of the developing world is being forced to acknowledge that the family just needs the money.
INSKEEP: And they're going to take the kid out of school and they're going to send the kid somewhere. And so somehow you have to adjust education and try to make sure there's a class in the factory or whatever. That's what's happening in the developing world. Would you go so far as to suggest that that needs to happen in some parts of the United States?
SCOTT: You know, I think there are a couple of different ways to think about solutions. On the policy, we're talking a lot about whole family approaches. You know, in this case, that's a very appropriate way to think about this problem - that it's not just the kid in isolation, but, you know, the family and having sort of resource sufficiency. And so interventions with the parents themselves with education and training, as well as figuring out how you help families meet some of those basic needs, can be really helpful.
INSKEEP: Molly Scott, thanks very much.
SCOTT: Thank you.
INSKEEP: She's a senior research associate at the Urban Institute.