Typically when adults ask themselves, “What’s the matter with young people today?” any discussion can quickly devolve into a kids-these-days gripe session. But a report released earlier this month by Dalio Education provides a trove of data, bringing into stark relief the number of young people in Connecticut who have tuned out.
The data-rich report, entitled Connecticut’s Unspoken Crisis, was researched and written by the Boston Consulting Group and paid for by Dalio Education, a nonprofit run by Barbara Dalio, the wife of legendary Westport hedge fund founder Ray Dalio.
The research found that in 2021-22 one in five of Connecticut’s young people are either “disconnected” from the educational system or “at-risk” of dropping out or otherwise failing to graduate high school. This is grim news, made worse by the fact that it is likely costing Connecticut more than $5 billion in gross domestic product and between $650 million and $750 million in lost tax revenues.
The report is getting a full airing in a series of discussions sponsored by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. The first, held in Norwalk last week, was a two-hours-long exchange of views featuring a panel of local officials and leaders of organizations serving the youth population from that part of the state.
The second event was held Tuesday in Wethersfield:
One of the most interesting aspects of the report is the novel cohort it surveyed: children and young adults from ages 14 to 26 – otherwise referred to in the report as “young people.” I agree with the report’s contention that there is an obvious “continuum” between the two age groups and that the grouping “effectively articulates the critical challenges Connecticut’s young people are facing and provides a roadmap for driving change.”
To produce the report, BCG mined data from the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, and the state departments of education, labor, mental health, children and families, and mental health and addiction services. “At-risk” is defined as struggling to finish high school on time, or struggling with suspensions or expulsions. The “disconnected” have dropped out, or perhaps even been incarcerated. All totaled, tens of thousands of young people in Connecticut are in one of those two categories.
“About 119,000 are at risk or disconnected,” said Dalio Education Co-CEO Andrew Ferguson. “Imagine going to the center of Yankee Stadium … now fill it twice, and fill most of Fenway Park once, and all of that is 119,000.”
It might seem counterintuitive to suburban and rural dwellers such as myself, but at-risk and disconnected (AR&D) young people are in every single Connecticut town, not just the famously troubled cities – proving, the study says, “the pervasiveness of this issue and the mounting need for all Connecticut stakeholders to act.”
To wit, two towns in my corner of the state, Salisbury and Canaan (a.k.a Falls Village) rank in the next-to-highest tier in terms of the percentage of disconnected. My hometown of Salisbury ranks 30th of 169 towns statewide in median family income and is one of the wealthiest towns in Litchfield County, which itself is the second wealthiest county in the state.
But as I like to remind my friends who tell me how lucky I am to live here, we are not without the kinds of social ills that persist in communities across the state. We are no strangers to crime, drug addiction and domestic violence, for example.
At the roundtable in Norwalk, there was a general consensus that the COVID-19 pandemic and the disruption it caused in the educational process exacerbated the problem identified in the study but did not cause it.
“All it did was highlight how bad it is,” Marc Donald, president and CEO of the Regional Youth Adult Social Action Partnership in Bridgeport, said of the pandemic’s effect on disconnectedness. “[COVID] just pushed it over the cliff.”
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There has been an obvious breakdown in the family unit across all income levels but, as is the case with many social ills, the lack of family cohesion has no doubt hit lower-income households especially hard.
The question we are left with is what to do about all this depressing data. The Dalio report recommends increasing awareness, strengthening connections between AR&D young people, increasing the capacity of high-performing organizations serving the AR&D community, and additional “scalable, evidence-based supports and services” for that population.
To that I would add incentivizing public schools to prohibit the use of cell phones inside the school building for the duration of the school day. The evidence is overwhelming that their frequent use contributes to learning loss and harms academic performance – both of which are important factors in reducing self-esteem, thereby causing disengagement and alienation. Several European nations have enacted school cell phone bans and the gains have been undeniable. In Spain, bullying was reduced and academic performance has improved.
In Norway, cell phone bans in middle school correlated with improved grades and test scores, along with increased likelihood of attending an advanced high school. As the Bloomberg News editorial board put it, “It also yielded bigger academic improvements than far more expensive policies, such as reducing class sizes or putting more computers in schools.”
In a related move, state Attorney General William Tong announced yesterday that he has joined 42 state attorneys general in filing a federal and state lawsuit against Meta, the parent of Facebook and Instagram, alleging that the company “knowingly designed and deployed harmful features on Instagram and its other social media platforms that purposefully addict children and teens,” even as Meta “falsely assured the public that these features are safe and suitable for young users.”
The only good news I can see to come out of the Dalio report is that the data dump has shed considerable light on a topic everyone knew was problematic. But it’s also a problem whose solution has an appeal that blurs the lines of politics. After all, as Ferguson wisely observed, “If the moral case does not persuade you to act, the economic case should.”