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Vulnerable Youth and the Transition to Adulthood

Youth from Low-Income Families

July 2009

This Research Brief is part of a larger project:
Vulnerable Youth and the Transistion to Adulthood

This Research Brief is available on the Internet at:

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About This Fact Sheet
This fact sheet was prepared by Adam Kent of the Urban Institute, under contract to ASPE, as part of a series on vulnerable youth and the transition to adulthood.  The project examined the role of different aspects of youth vulnerability and risk-taking behaviors on several outcomes for young adults.  The data come from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1997 cohort.  This survey, funded by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, follows a sample of adolescents in 1997 into young adulthood with annual interviews that capture their education, employment, family formation, and other behaviors.  The analyses in this series use the subset of youth born in 1980–81, who were 15–17 years old when first interviewed in 1997.  Outcomes are obtained by using the annual data through 2005 when these young adults were 23–25 years old.

The author acknowledges the comments of Caroline Ratcliffe, Jennifer Macomber, and Michael Pergamit of the Urban Institute.  Also from the Urban Institute, Tracy Vericker helped conceptualize the project and Daniel Kuehn performed the data work and provided technical assistance.  Additional information regarding this study can be obtained from the Federal Project Officers:  Flavio Menasce (202-260-0384, Flavio.Menasce@hhs.gov), Susan Hauan (202-690-8698, Susan.Hauan@hhs.gov), and Annette Rogers (202-690-7882, Annette.Rogers@hhs.gov).

In 2007, nearly 40 percent of children in the United States lived in low-income families — families with incomes at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL).[1] Youth from low-income families are vulnerable to poor outcomes as adults, as these youth often lack the resources and opportunities found to lead to better outcomes. This fact sheet compares the young adult outcomes and adolescent risk-taking behaviors of youth from low-income families to those from middle-income (201–400 percent of FPL) and high-income (401 percent of FPL or higher) families. All differences discussed below are significant at the 95 percent confidence level or above.

Youth Consistently-Connected to School or Work between Ages 18 and 24

Figure 1. Youth Consistently-Connected to School or Work between Ages 18 and 24. See text for explanation and data.

Source: Urban Institute estimates of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997.
Notes: Sample sizes: all youth, n = 2,041; youth from low-income families, n = 896; youth from middle-income families, n = 594; youth from high-income families, n = 365. Consistently-connected youth are in school or working most of the time between ages 18 and 24. Differences are statistically significant at or above the 95% confidence level.

Adolescent Risk Behaviors and Young Adult Outcomes by Family Income Level
  Youth from low-income families
(n = 896)
Youth from middle-income families
(n = 594)
Youth from high-income families
(n = 365)
All youth
(n = 2,041)
Adolescent Risk Behaviors
Cumulative risky behaviors (mean) 3.5 3.2* 2.9* 3.3
Alcohol by age 13 15% 13% 15% 15%
Marijuana by age 16 35% 34% 33% 35%
Used other drugs 26% 26% 29% 27%
Sex by age 16 59% 48%* 39%* 51%
Attack someone/get into a fight 33% 26%* 22%* 28%
Member of a gang 12% 7%* 5%* 9%
Sell drugs 19% 19% 20% 19%
Destroy property 35% 38% 36% 36%
Steal something worth less than $50 46% 47% 44% 46%
Steal something worth more than $50 18% 13%* 11%* 15%
Other property crime 16% 15% 10%* 14%
Carry a gun 19% 16% 11%* 16%
Ever run away 21% 16%* 12%* 18%
Other Sexual activity
Sex by age 13 5% 3%* 3% 4%
Birth by age 18 (of female youth) 7% 2%* 1%* 4%
Highest Degree Completed by Age 23-24
None 29% 10%* 5%* 17%
High school diploma 55% 54% 39%* 51%
Associate’s degree 5% 8% 5% 6%
Four-year college degree or higher 10% 28%* 50%* 26%
Median Annual Earnings (among Earners)
Age 18 $10,402 $10,570 $8,997 $10,139
Age 19 $13,026 $13,127 $11,800 $12,637
Age 20 $13,704 $14,214 $14,105 $13,876
Age 21 $16,366 $18,783* $18,700 $17,384
Age 22 $18,806 $22,265* $23,762* $21,430
Age 23 $21,591 $20,937 $24,951* $22,411
Employed on 24th birthday 71% 77% 89%* 77%
Connectedness to School or Work between Ages 18 and 24
Consistently-connected 44% 67%* 75%* 60%
Initially-connected 17% 13%* 13% 15%
Later-connected 21% 14%* 9%* 15%
Never-connected 18% 6%* 2%* 10%
Charged with a Crime
Charged with an adult crime by age 24 20% 16%* 12%* 17%
Source: Urban Institute estimates of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997.
Notes: Some youth who did not complete high school may have earned a General Equivalency Diploma. Median earnings exclude youth who did not work and therefore had zero earnings. The cumulative risk behavior score is based on the 13 risk behaviors listed beneath it. Adolescent risk behaviors are measured up to age 18, except where otherwise noted.  Never-connected youth may make extremely short connections to school or the labor market.
* Estimate is significantly different from youth from low-income families at the 95% confidence level or above.


[1] United States Bureau of the Census. 2008 Annual Social and Economic (ASEC) Supplement. Retrieved October 23, 2008 from:  http://pubdb3.census.gov/macro/032008/pov/new02_200_01.htm.

[2] Cumulative risky behaviors include consuming alcohol before age 13, using marijuana before age 16, using other drugs before age 18, selling illegal drugs before age 18, engaging in sex before age 16, stealing something worth less than $50 before age 18, stealing something worth more than $50 before age 18, destroying property before age 18; committing other property crime before age 18, being a member of a gang before age 18, getting into a fight before age 18, carrying a gun before age 18, and running away from home before age 18.

[3] Youth who did not obtain a high school degree may have obtained a General Equivalency Diploma.

[4] Results of a trajectory analyses conducted using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 identify four pathways for youth connectedness to employment or school between ages 18 and 24: consistently-connected, initially-connected, later-connected, and never-connected. For more information see Kuehn, D., Pergamit, M., and Macomber, J., and Vericker, T. (2009). Multiple Pathways Connecting to School and Work. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.

How to Obtain a Printed Copy

To obtain a printed copy of this report, send the title and your mailing information to:

Human Services Policy, Room 404E
Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
200 Independence Ave, SW
Washington, DC 20201

Fax:  (202) 690-6562
Email:  pic@hhs.gov

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Last updated:  08/11/2009