Who’s Minding the Neighborhood?

The role of adult capacity in keeping young people on a path to graduation

A new brief from the Center for Promise explores whether increasing the number of adults in a community results in more young people on a positive path to adult success.

While there has been a steady improvement over the last 40 years in the overall rate of youth leaving school, researchers have long noted substantial variation by state, city and neighborhood. Using Decennial Census data (1970-2010), Center for Promise researchers looked into reasons for the variation.

Focused solely on metropolitan areas throughout the United States, lead author Dr. Jonathan Zaff and co-author Thomas Malone examined the ratio of adults (age 25+) to school-aged youth (age 6 to 17) in a zip code to understand whether the number of adults affects the “status dropout rate” or the number of young people who leave school before graduating. The authors find that:

  • The adult capacity in a community is related to a decrease in the rate of youth leaving school. A 1 percent increase in the adult-to-youth ratio results in a 1 percent decrease in the rate of young people leaving school. In real-world terms, this result means that for every seven more adults in the neighborhood, one fewer young person leaves school.
  • Race matters, specifically in predominantly Black or African-American communities, in amplifying this effect. The effect of the adult-to-youth ratio is amplified in neighborhoods that are comprised mostly of Black or African-American residents, increasing the effect by 30 percent in those communities – in other words, for every approximately five more adults in a community, one fewer young person leaves school. Since the average black or African-American resident lives in a neighborhood that is approximately two-thirds black or African American in 11 of the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the country, the potential benefits of this amplified effect cannot be underestimated.
  • Income matters in increasing the effect of adult capacity. The adult-to-youth ratio effect is amplified in higher-income communities. The analysis shows that doubling a neighborhood’s mean income increases the effect size of the ratio by 12 percent. This finding indicates that adults need institutional, social and economic resources – supported by income – to most effectively help young people.
  • A higher level of educational attainment among adults in the community did not have a significant effect. Therefore, all adults, regardless of their educational attainment, can play a role in keeping young people on a path to graduation.

The research suggests that comparisons by zip code within a city and its neighborhoods may uncover disparities in adult capacity that can support the efforts of activists and leaders in the public, private and nonprofit sectors as they work to meet the needs of young peopleRead the full brief

Want to see how this plays out in your neighborhood?

Through a partnership with Community Commons—a nonprofit collaboration powered by the Institute for People, Place and Possibility, the Center for Applied Research and Environmental Systems, and Community Initiatives — you can find out the adult-to-youth ratio in your zip code and add other meaningful data to create maps and reports that explore your community’s health.