Bella Ortega didn't spend her 18th birthday with family or friends. Instead, she was locked up in a Sonoma County Juvenile Hall cell on a violation charge, thinking hard about how she'd ended up in such a low place on such an important occasion.
Soft-spoken, dark hair pulled back into a low ponytail and dressed in a gray Oxford shirt and jeans, Ortega says the experience triggered a stark understanding of her life choices. "It made me open my eyes to do bigger and better things," she explains.
A student from Ridgway High School, Ortega graduated last December and immediately began a job hunt. She plans to attend Santa Rosa Junior College this fall, but it's been a challenge to fill out the online financial aid application for various reasons, like access to computers and to her mom's information. A job application to Kmart resulted in a call back for a group interview, where she was the youngest applicant. She didn't get hired.
"I thought it would be a little easier to find a job, but it's not," she says. Ortega admits that her arrest record—she's on probation until Feb. 27—might pose an extra obstacle.
But Ortega's situation can't be completely attributed to her past legal troubles. The reality is that the youth unemployment rate in the United States is at its highest since World War II. A new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation finds that 6.5 million teens and young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 are neither in school nor in the workforce. These are the "disconnected youth"—and the rates are highest among black and Latino populations.
The numbers are no better in Sonoma County, where 12.5 percent, or one out of eight youth between the ages of 16 and 19, are classified as "disconnected," according to data from the American Community Survey listed at kidsdata.org. For teens in that age bracket who aren't in school or working a job, Sonoma County ranks a dismal 22 out of 24 for California counties with populations over 250,000.
Like Ortega, these young adults experience fierce competition from older workers for entry-level jobs. They lack the skill set needed for any higher level jobs that are available. Add poverty, lack of role models, low-performing schools and absent parents to the mix, and you get a recipe for disaster.
Increased illegal behaviors and dependence on public aid are two common byproducts of a young adulthood spent "disconnected," says Kellie Noe from the Sonoma County Department of Health Services. Noe is a coordinator of Cradle to Career, a new countywide partnership that connects all segments of the educational continuum—from prenatal, to early childhood, to K–12 and into college and technical training.