Delinquent. Dropout. At-Risk. When Words Become Labels
Much of our recent reporting, especially from New Orleans, has focused on young people who are neither in school nor working. There are an estimated 5 1/2 million of them, ages 16 to 24, in the United States.
But what do we call them? The nomenclature has fluctuated widely over the decades. And each generation's preferred term is packed with assumptions— economic, social, cultural, and educational — about the best way to frame the issue. Essentially, each name contains an argument about who's at fault, and where to find solutions.
"I think the name matters," says Andrew Mason, the executive director of, an alternative school in Portland, Ore. "If we're using disparaging names, people are going to have a hard time thinking that you're there to help kids."
Mason has worked in alternative education for more than 23 years and has seen these terms evolve over time.
To delve deeper into just how much the taxonomy has changed, I used Google's Ngram Viewer tool to track mentions of some of the most popular phrases in published books. I started at the year 1940. Back then, the prevailing term was:
This is among the oldest terms used to describe this category of young people. It was originally identified with a reformist, progressive view that sought special treatment for them, outside of adult prisons. It lumped together youths who broke a law, "wayward" girls who got pregnant or young people who were simply homeless.
The New York House of Refuge, founded in 1825, has been called the first institution designated exclusively to serve such youth. An 1860 article in The New York Times described its mission as "the reformation of juvenile delinquents."
This was the beginning of the "reform school," aka "industrial school" movement. The primary response to young people in these situations was to institutionalize them, sometimes for years, with varying levels of access to food, shelter, work and education. Meanwhile, the first designated juvenile court was established in 1899 in Cook County, Ill.
The Ngram graph shows rising interest in "juvenile delinquents" throughout the 1950s and 1960s — reflected in pop culture images like West Side Story and Rebel Without A Cause. A series of Supreme Court cases in the late '60s and early '70s established that courts could not have carte blanche in institutionalizing young defendants; their rights should be similar to those of adults.
Nell Bernstein, a journalist who has written several books about juvenile justice, points out that the term "juvenile" is more commonly used to refer to animals than people. "I have two teenage children, but I don't call them juveniles," she says. "It's dehumanizing."
The concept of a high school dropout was nonsensical through the early 20th century. That's because so few people graduated from high school in the first place. There was a concerted government effort to increase high school enrollment through the Great Depression. But graduation rates topped 50 percent of the population only by 1940.
As we can see here, the drumbeat about a "dropout crisis" rose steeply in the 1960s and reached a peak in the early 1970s. Part of that was due to demographics. The baby boom had subsided into a "birth dearth," and enrollment was flattening for the first time in U.S. history. In the meantime, the economic benefits of an education continued to grow.
Bernstein says that in her experience, the rise in use of the term dropout was tied to psychedelic pioneer Timothy Leary's famous slogan, "Turn on, tune in, drop out."
This image of dropping out as a cultural or social choice has persisted, she says. "When I did research on homeless youth, there was a strong misconception that they were '60s-style dropouts who had left in pursuit of freedom and because they couldn't do as many drugs at home."
Bernstein favors also using the term "pushout," which, she says, "opens up the possibility that the onus isn't entirely on the dropout" and "looks at root causes." In our New Orleans reporting we often found people talking about students getting "pushed out" of school.
Concern about dropouts soared again in the 1990s. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush set a a national goal of cutting the dropout rate to 10 percent.
However, says Russell Rumberger, director of the at the University of California, Santa Barbara, high school graduation rates kept declining, to a modern-day low of 69 percent by 2002.
It has since rebounded to an all-time high.
But, he says, "I worry about emphasis on this one statistic, because it masks variations that are quite important." He cites a Brookings Institution study that says that to raise your chances of becoming middle class by age 40, it's necessary to avoid jail, avoid becoming pregnant as a teen and pass high school with at least a 2.5 GPA.
The term "at-risk youth" gained currency in the wake of the 1983 publication of the policy report A Nation At Risk. The report cautioned that America's way of life was threatened by a "rising tide of mediocrity" within the school system. The term "at risk" suggests a focus on prevention and intervention, in the form of social services, tutoring and related programs. According to the Ngram, it seems to have risen in popularity just as "juvenile delinquent" declined.
"Delinquent" conjures up a state of being, while "at risk" suggests a vulnerable person in need of help. A scholarly paper by Margaret Placier at the University of Missouri, Columbia argues that "at risk" became a buzzword because it was vague enough to be defined broadly or narrowly, depending on the purpose. But Bernstein and Mason both point out that "at risk" also focuses on the negative.
A 1995 article by John J. Dilulio Jr., a professor and author with appointments at Princeton University, the Brookings Institution and the Manhattan Institute, was titled, "The Coming of the Super-Predators." It predicted a rising tide of youth violence: a burgeoning generation of homicidal thugs without a conscience, "elementary school youngsters who pack guns instead of lunches," found "in black inner-city neighborhoods." The culprits, Dilulio wrote, were drugs, child abuse and other types of "moral poverty."
The concept caught on in the media and among politicians. In the 1990s, as part of a broader "tough on crime" trend, almost every state passed laws that raised the number of young people being tried as adults. But the promised boom in youth crime never arrived — in fact, by the '90s, juvenile offenses had begun to level off, and today they are at their lowest rates ever.
When Gina Womack founded Families And Friends Of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children, an advocacy group, 17 years ago, she had to contend with the image of the aggressive, incorrigible "superpredator." Gradually, she says, it faded. "Kids were thought of, and talked about, as children, and not so much as these horrible monsters."
Bernstein calls the superpredator stereotype "absurd and devastating ... an insult you can't take back." She points out that, like juvenile, it compares people to animals. As the Ngram chart shows, the word never really went away.
Opportunity youth is a phrase of such recent vintage, it doesn't show up in a Google book search.
John Bridgeland, CEO of Civic Enterprises, a public-policy firm in Washington, D.C., coined the term in a 2012 report. It was created with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which funds education coverage among other areas at NPR). Bridgeland had previously authored a national survey and report on dropouts, titled "The Silent Epidemic."
"I'm not one to paper over reality or hardship," he says. "I don't like buzz terms or jargon." But in talking with young people in these situations, he says, he saw "Extraordinary untapped potential. ... They saw the benefits of finishing school and getting a decent job. They were extremely hopeful, notwithstanding their challenges. My bottom line was, if they can be hopeful, why can't we?"
Bridgeland's "opportunity" had a second meaning. He commissioned economic calculations of the social costs of these young people, as measured in lost wages and increased use of social services. "They cost the economy and our society $93 billion every year," he says. "If you're not compelled by the moral, individual argument, maybe the economic argument will wake you up."
The Aspen Institute, among others, has funded "opportunity youth" initiatives that seek to bring together schools, community groups, foster care programs, family court and the juvenile justice system to help young people find their way back.
"Some folks who do this work like it. Some don't," Melissa Sawyer, whose Youth Empowerment Project serves this population in New Orleans, says of the "opportunity youth" catchphrase. It can be seen as empowering, she says, or condescending. "At one level, it's semantics."
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