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  • Three in ten 16- to 18-year-old high-school dropouts are working, often to help support their families. Tweet This
  • Policy-makers should find ways to make it possible to work and finish high school at the same time. Tweet This

Most high-school dropouts are "disconnected youth": they're neither in school nor working, which leaves them disproportionately likely to become involved in criminal activities and to fall into poverty. Yet three in ten young dropouts—those between ages 16 and 18—are working, according to a new brief from the Urban Institute, and their earnings account for a significant share of their families' household income.

Using data from the American Community Survey, Molly M. Scott, Simone Zhang, and Heather Koball found that these teens are more likely than their disconnected peers to be male (64 percent), Hispanic (41 percent), first-generation immigrants (25 percent), and not living with a parent (34 percent). Their families tend to fall under or near the poverty line, but are less likely than the families of non-working dropouts to receive forms of government aid such as SNAP benefits (food stamps) and Medicaid. Working dropouts' families are also less educated: "Youth in households where no one has more than an eighth-grade education are more than twice as likely to work as other youth." Presumably the low earnings potential of other household members helps to explain why these teens enter the labor force themselves.

Although the income of 16- to 18-year-olds without high school diplomas is unsurprisingly low, at a mean of $9,500 annually, it makes up one-fifth of their household's total income on average. That's enough to "move 42 percent of households with income that would otherwise fall below [the federal poverty line] out of poverty."

Unfortunately, the ACS data cannot tell researchers whether these teens are dropping out of school and then deciding to work, or whether the need to work is causing them to drop out in the first place. Based on other studies, Scott, Zhang, and Koball believe the latter is at least sometimes the case. And there's not enough research out there to predict working dropouts' long-term outcomes—whether they'll complete their education later, whether they can build on their early work experiences to climb the economic ladder, and so on.

The policy takeaways are more clear: Scott et al. suggest incorporating family financial obligations into interventions designed to keep young people in school, connecting more needy families to existing forms of government aid while ensuring that that aid does not push young people out of the labor force entirely, and above all, "support[ing] ways for youth to simultaneously stay in school and meet family obligations." Keeping one's family afloat in the short term should not require decreasing one's chances of educational and financial success in the long term.