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How at-risk youth benefit from youth development programs

May 14, 2021
A teenager stands next to his mother, both smiling.

Every child deserves the opportunity to succeed. However, at-risk youth can fall behind without support or redirection. Youth development programs by nonprofit organizations and public agencies can prepare and equip these young people for the challenges of adulthood and help them reach their full potential.

In this article, we’ll discuss how at-risk youth are at a disadvantage when it comes to learning new skills and progressing through life, and highlight how youth development can give them the tools to succeed.

Who are at-risk youth?

At-risk youth are children under the age of 18 who live in families under the federal poverty line, or those who have poor access to personal resources and education. At-risk youth are less likely to finish school, obtain stable employment, or have a high income due to a variety of factors during childhood development such as socioeconomic status, parental marriage status, access to food, and access to education.

According to the American Community Survey, about 17% of all children under 18 in the U.S. are in families below the poverty line, meaning over 10 million children live in low-income families below the federal poverty level and are considered at-risk.

The importance of education for at-risk youth

At-risk youth have several factors working against them from a young age that can disrupt their education and life progression. Children from low-income families are more likely to start school with limited language skills, have less parental support with homework, and deal with more emotional and social problems that interfere with learning. 

Students who live in communities with high levels of poverty are four times more likely to be chronically absent due to factors such as unstable housing, unreliable transportation, and a lack of access to health care. By sixth grade, chronic absence is a leading indicator that a student will drop out of high school.

Factors such as chronic absence can compound and make students more likely to drop out of high school and college, lowering their chances for career opportunities in their adult life. However, by identifying at-risk youth early on and providing them with educational support, you can boost their chances of graduating.

Health impacts on at-risk youth

Children raised below the poverty line are likely to lack basic food security, clothing, adequate housing, and health care. This can have long-term health, developmental, and mental health impacts. 

Reduced access to healthy foods and groceries can lead to obesity in children. Children living in low socioeconomic level families are much more likely to be overweight or obese when compared to their higher socioeconomic level peers. At-risk youth are also twice as likely to develop prediabetes, due to not receiving proper nutrition. 

At-risk youth also frequently lack access to sex education and pregnancy prevention resources. Unintended pregnancies are most common among women below the federal poverty line and who haven’t completed high school. 

With better access to education, food, and healthcare, at-risk youth will be more likely to live healthier lives as youth and later on in life. 

How youth development helps at-risk youth

Youth development programs help at-risk youth improve their social skills, behavior, academic achievement, self-esteem, and self-efficacy. They can also strengthen their identities, belief in the future, and self-regulation.

These programs help at-risk youth by giving them a variety of opportunities to engage in positive encounters with peers and mentors. When at-risk youth are involved in youth development programs they have higher rates of successful adulthood transitions like finding full-time jobs or education opportunities. 

Here are some examples of impactful youth development programs: 

  • The EYES Project. A youth empowerment program hosted by CUNY’s Medgar Evers College, the EYES project provided a comprehensive nutrition and exercise curriculum for local students to help fight childhood obesity. The results of the program was an average weight loss of 20 pounds, bringing participating students into a healthy average BMI range
  • 4-H Club. This U.S. based youth empowerment program offers afterschool STEM courses for grades 10-12. Students involved in this program were twice as likely to participate in science, engineering, and computer technology programs.

Youth who have sufficient support from their families, schools, and communities have more opportunities to develop the assets necessary to do well in life, and youth development programs can supply those opportunities to at-risk youth.

Helping at-risk youth

Hardworking nonprofits, volunteers, and individuals help improve the lives of at-risk youth every day by creating and hosting youth development programs. If your nonprofit has a youth development program, keep in mind that you’ll want to prove its impact to supporters and donors. To do that, collect anecdotes and data to create your impact story. Being able to show tangible results will help your supporters engage with the program and increase the amount of gifts donors will make to it.

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