History of Opportunity Youth


The term “Opportunity Youth” is a relatively new phrase to describe youth between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not in school and not in the labor force.

From “Disconnected to Opportunity”

Youth who are now called “Opportunity Youth” were once called “Disconnected Youth.” The different terms used to describe these youth are a direct reflection of society’s views on these youth throughout specific time periods. A few of these terms are listed below:

Youth Disconnected – Following decades of using moralistic and negative words to describe this group of young people, social service organizations and government agencies began to favor a more neutral term: disconnected. One example of this is the Opportunity Nation report , which reported in 2010 that “youth disconnected” had increased since 1990, and that now nearly 15 percent of young adults were disconnected.

Juvenile Delinquent – The National Public Radio articulates the impact of the labels given to these youth. This term is one of the oldest and was “originally identified with a reformist, progressive view that sought special treatment for them, outside of adult prisons.” It conglomerated law-breakers, homeless youth and “wayward” girls who got pregnant.

Dropout – This term held no value in the 20th century because so few people graduated high school, but as the graduation rate increased so did the negative connotations of the term. Dropout was used in spite of the circumstances that barred these individuals  from being able to attend school. 

At-Risk Youth – “‘Delinquent’ conjures up a state of being, while ‘at risk’ suggests a vulnerable person in need of help. (Margaret Placier)” However you chose to look at the development of the term, “At-risk Youth” still focuses on the negative aspects.  Yet, this term rose to fame in place of ‘Juvenile Delinquent’ according to research done on the usage of the words.

Super-predator – In 1995 after a book was released with this term used there was a boom in its use.  This term portrayed these youth as aggressive and removed the child replacing instead a “monster”, argued Gina Womack who founded Families And Friends Of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, an advocacy group, 17 years ago.Nell Bernstein, an author and journalist who has written several books about juvenile justice, calls the super predator stereotype “absurd and devastating … an insult you can’t take back.” She points out that, like juvenile, it compares people to animals.

Why “Opportunity Youth”?

The name ‘Opportunity Youth’ is currently the ‘best way’ to frame the issue. The Achieving Collective Impact for Opportunity Report reads “They are called Opportunity Youth as a reflection of the optimism they have for finding a pathway to economic stability, and as a reminder that investing in their futures represents an immense opportunity for employers and the nation. By improving outcomes for this population, businesses and communities have the potential to increase savings for society, improve the quality of talent available to employers, and interrupt a multi-generational cycle of poverty for youth and their families. (Allen, Miles, Steinberg)”

The youth who are grouped using this term have shared their distaste for the term. Many have expressed that the term seems to only act as a means of boxing these individuals in and chaining them to the term and the situations under which they received this title.

There has been an obsession with placing a label onto these group of people, as it is with most things in the American society. For these individuals, it has been an ongoing challenge to find a term that would best describe them and shine a positive light on their stories.

There has been a clear effort to take this negative term and change its connotation to show that the individuals are being misrepresented. However, the term itself still acts as a barrier. These youth merely want to be human beings on a journey to make something out of the life they were handed, much like every other individual.

We came to the conclusion that while the term “Opportunity Youth” is much more welcoming than previous terms such as at-risk youth or delinquent, it still serves as a reminder of the circumstances of these youth. For one, when you hear the term “Opportunity Youth” you are immediately swarmed with an internal bias that these youth are underprivileged, minorities who are in need of an opportunity.

The literature that we have read about these youth leads one to believe they are merely financial burdens to taxpayers. This term is boxing them into a category that is not needed. They are just human beings, like everyone else. Regardless if they are not in school or working, they should not be viewed be categorized and marginalized.


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