The American Dream is both real and at risk.

This fundamental paradox – that today is a good time and a challenging time to be a young person in America – is at the heart of Our Work.

Many young people are better off than ever before in America. High school graduation is at an all-time high, and teen pregnancy is at a historic low. More young children are in preschool, and fewer teens are using drugs and alcohol. More young people are graduating college, and fewer young people are in prison.

But many young people still face enormous challenges. Just over 12 percent of youth are not in school or working – almost the same as it was 10 years ago. While the educational achievement gap based on race and ethnicity has narrowed, it remains conspicuous. The child poverty rate is the same today as it was 20 years ago. The rate of children living in low-income families (up to 200 percent of the poverty line) has increased from 39 percent to 43 percent. Mobility is increasingly limited: Of those children born to parents in the lowest income bracket, 42 percent remain there as adults. 

How can we take what’s been learned and accelerate progress for young people in America, especially for those young people who are most vulnerable? How can we create the conditions for success for more young people, more quickly? 

To answer these questions, America’s Promise reviewed research about what’s changed in the past 20 years in young people’s lives and in our understanding of youth development. We surveyed our network, spoke with young people, and interviewed more than 200 people representing nonprofits, corporations, foundations, research and policy entities, educational institutions, government, and other systems.

Out of this exploration we identified two areas of research and learning over the past 20 years – the study of child and youth development and the study of economic mobility – that give us the best view of the road to greater progress. Our Work explores both fields — what we’ve learned about young people and how they interact with their world, and what we’ve learned about how they move out of poverty.

The fields of child and youth development and economic mobility don’t fully explain if and how young people succeed. Complex and systemic inequities – based on race, class, disability, gender, ethnicity, language, religion, sexual orientation, geography, and more – block children’s path. Responses that fail to recognize and take on these realities are destined to fall short.

All that we heard and learned convinced us that to accelerate progress, to create the conditions of success for more young people, we need to: 

  • Provide every young person with strong relationships and webs of support that provide the safety, expectations, guidance, confidence, and accountability that can propel them forward. 
  • Create clear, connected, and responsive pathways for young people to travel, on their journey to achieve lives of contribution and choice. 
  • Envelop young people in an engaged community and renewed civic spirit that demonstrates active support, investment, and belief in their success. 

Our Work explores each of these three focus areas, providing evidence of their importance, implications for organizations and systems, and questions for reflection and discussion. Our Work ends with an invitation to all to work more collaboratively, effectively, and quickly to create the conditions of success for the young people of America.

Also in Our Work:

  • A Snapshot of Children and Youth Over Two Decades
  • Trends in Youth Outcomes
  • Comprehensive Data Sources on Young People and their Environments
  • 5 Efforts Identifying and Measuring Social and Emotional Skills
  • 10 Must-Reads on Child & Youth Development
  • 10 Must-Reads on Economic Mobility
  • 5 Programs that Build Relationships
  • 5 Programs that Build Pathways
  • 5 Policy Frameworks
  • 5 Programs Cultivating Youth Voice
  • A full list of the 200 people interviewed for this report

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