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Raising the Income Prospects of Low-income Youth

Boy in classroom with his art self portrait

This blog was originally posted by The California Endowment.

Fifty years since President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty, America is still vexed by how to move more people up the economic ladder. Among other challenges, our education and job training systems are typically ill-equipped to prepare low-income young people with skills for good jobs or further education. This is largely because education and training institutions cannot effectively teach young people these skills without having ways to mitigate issues associated with their poverty. Unfortunately few do.

But more could, if provided with the right strategies and incentives. JFF has just released two papers that describe some, featuring several promising schools, community partnerships, and workforce training programs. We were able to study and share these with the generous support of The California Endowment. We focused not only on examples from and implications for California, but also nationally.

For the paper, In and Beyond Schools: Putting More Youth on the Path to Success with Integrated Support, JFF partnered with Susan Lee, from the Advancement Project California, a strong advocate for and thinker about empowering low-income communities of color. The report features research and practices from schools and communities that are building metacognitive learning strategies, mindsets, and college/career-going behaviors in low-income high school students with promising results. Focusing on what students do and how they think about their work and their own capacities, not merely what they know, supports their college and career-readiness and long-term success. Too often youth are asked to master complex content, resist distractions, and manage their own learning—all without the support they need to overcome past trauma, cope with current challenges, and develop the skills and mindsets that maximize one’s effectiveness as a learner.

Schools must own these dimensions of learning to be successful in educating low-income youth, but they cannot do it alone, needing partnerships with colleges, community-based organizations, youth-serving agencies, employers, and others. Moreover, we discuss how schools and partners cannot advance such efforts at any scale without systemic changes to education financing, accountability, data sharing, training for adults working with youth, and local and regional coordination.

In Health Care Pathways for Opportunity Youth: A Framework for Practitioners and Policymakers, lead author Randall Wilson, forwards a framework for addressing timely challenges. During a time of expanding demands on the health care system and a fragile economic recovery, can we enlist and train for health careers some of the millions of opportunity youth who are now disconnected or off track from attaining education and careers?

The paper takes lessons from programs that have successfully supported adults to enter health careers and adapts them to recommend approaches for opportunity youth. It also provides case studies for a number of promising youth-serving programs that align with and inform many of the recommendations, including those promoting:

  • Work-Friendly Education: Programs meet students where they are and make learning accessible and responsive to their lives. They engage students in mapping career interests, goals, and pathways and build basic skills by contextualizing learning though work-based examples and experiences. And they engage employers to ensure alignment with workplace expectations and to enlist mentors for students.
  • Learning-friendly Workplaces: Adapting this principle from adult-serving programs means ensuring that career preparation puts at the center each young person’s distinct educational and personal needs. Interdisciplinary curricula can tap into themes of generative relevance (e.g., social justice) and include competency-based assessments of student mastery. Advising and guidance must ensure that college going and completion are made possible.
  • Community Collaboration and Partnership: Partnerships should include employers, industry associations, schools and colleges, community-based education and training providers, and human service and workforce agencies. Opportunity outh pathways need also to engage entities specific to disconnected youth, such as the juvenile justice system, public agencies serving children and families (and foster youth in particular), and CBOs involved in youth development.

The report also describes some of the systemic conditions and policy changes needed (including to the federal Workforce Investment Act) to enable more of the recommended approaches to scale up.

None of the strategies recommended in the papers are a panacea, but we hope that they can provide important examples of how to make greater and faster progress on raising the economic prospects of low-income youth nationally.

Photograph courtesy of Boston Day and Evening Academy