The Status of Teens in Rural Vermont: Research Summary

This brief summarizes the findings of simultaneous needs assessments conducted in two communities in the northeast corner of Vermont in 2010-11. The project surveyed 386 young people ages 14-21 about their experiences and concerns for the future, as well as what adults can do to help them feel safe and on track. While relative to a particular place and time, the findings can nonetheless offer important insights to social service providers, educators, civic officials and others who work with and on behalf of adolescents in rural parts of the United States.  The needs assessment strategy employed here likewise provides a template for others embarking on research of adolescents in less developed areas.

Table of Contents

Introduction
School and the Community
Employment and Transportation
The Future and Chances for Success
How to Improve Life for Youth in the NEK
Conclusion

Introduction

Between January and April 2010, Youth Catalytics (then NEN) administered an online survey to 386 young people between the ages of 14 and 21 in Caledonia, Essex and Orleans Counties in Vermont. This region, known as the Northeast Kingdom (NEK), is the most rural and economically distressed part of the state.1 The youth survey was part of a project called YouthFactor NEK that is working to create opportunities for young people in Newport, Vt., and nearby communities, particularly those transitioning to adulthood without the support of their families. Headed by the Vermont Agency of Human Services, YouthFactor NEK is a five-year demonstration project for rural youth funded by the Family & Youth Services Bureau of the US Administration for Children and Families.

The survey asked 21 questions addressing three overarching themes:

  • the people, places and activities that youth found helpful or encouraging in their communities;
  • the people, places or activities that troubled or upset them;
  • and what they thought their communities could do to improve life for them and their peers

We also asked youth about:

  • their current job status and perceptions about the local job market;
  • how easy or difficult it is to find transportation;
  • whether they knew people their age without a permanent place to live;
  • and whether they planned to stay in the area or leave as they approached adulthood

We asked about the kinds of jobs they would like to see in the area for young people, and about how the transportation system could be improved for them and their peers. Finally, we asked for more general recommendations about how to make their communities better places in which to grow up. Hundreds of direct quotes appear in the two reports, and together they create a nuanced portrait of the inner lives of the area’s teens and young adults.

Respondents were recruited broadly from local high schools and from agencies that work with youth in need of specialized services. Young people were promised anonymity, and paid $5 each for participating. Slightly over half were male, slightly under half were female, and five youth identified themselves as transgender. Almost 88% were white; participants from other racial groups reflected the overall population in the NEK 2 — 1% Asian; 2% African-American, 1% Hispanic, 2% bi- or multiracial, and 6% other. The average age of respondents was 16.6 years. Responses to several questions were stratified by age so that views of older and younger youth could be examined separately.

This project was unusual for two reasons: it gathered information from a large number of young people, and asked a variety of open-ended questions that allowed them to respond in their own words. Hundreds of direct quotes appear in the two reports, and together they create a nuanced portrait of the inner lives of the area’s teens and young adults.

Such research is important in light of a growing body of studies indicating that young people in rural areas are at heightened risk of poor outcomes. Youth in rural areas are more likely to be ‘idle’ — that is, not in school and not working — than their counterparts in urban areas.3 They are also at higher risk for poverty and substance use.4 At the same time, Vermont, along with h other predominately rural states, faces the ‘brain drain’ occasioned by large numbers of young people leaving the state for more opportunity.

 Young people say that there is enormous room for
improvement, and they are clear about what those improvements should be.

What do the nearly 400 young people we surveyed say about their own experiences as youth in one of the most remote parts of the country? On one hand, most say that their hometowns were reasonably good places to grow up, and that they find solid encouragement from family, friends, teachers or clergy. On the other hand, they say that there is enormous room for improvement, and they are clear in their ideas about what those improvements should be.

Finally, taken together, the survey findings counter the widely held notion that problems such as drug use and disconnection from family are concentrated in a small subpopulation of ‘at- risk’ youth. Rather, they suggest the opposite: that issues such as drug use, peer violence and even homelessness affect large numbers of youth, either directly or indirectly. Furthermore, most young people can make concrete recommendations about how to address these issues, and, far from pushing adults out of the picture, most of the suggestions invited active adult involvement and participation.

School and the Community

A majority of youth — 69% — said high school had been a very good or mostly good experience for them, while only 7% said their experience in school had been ‘horrible.’ Not surprisingly given the amount of time they spend there, respondents had a good deal to say about high school. Most of the comments were positive, with young people citing classes, teachers and coaches as sources of inspiration and encouragement. For a minority of youth, though, school was clearly a place of anxiety — often boring, and discouraging, and occasionally even frightening.

Three-quarters of survey respondents say life in the NEK is either ‘great’ or ‘okay.’ Young people ages 14 and 15 were more likely than older youth to view the area positively. Nineteen percent of young people said the area wasn’t a good place for people their age, and five percent said it was a ‘really horrible’ place to grow up.

The survey asked youth to name the people or places that encourage them to succeed in life, as well as to list what discourages, upsets or worries them. Responses to these open-ended questions were sorted into broad categories with some degree of overlap. The most frequently named encouragers (in order of popularity) were: parents and family; schools, coaches, teachers or guidance counselors; friends; and social service agencies, therapists and other helpers. The most frequently mentioned discouragers or sources of worry were: negative peers and adults; lack of interesting activities; drugs; school; and poor physical infrastructure such as roads, sidewalks and buildings.

Click charts to see the data.

Homelessness or Disconnection from Family

In a finding that may surprise many adults, over half of all survey respondents knew at least one person age 21 or under who had left or been kicked out of their home and had no permanent place to stay. Fourteen- and 15-year-olds were slightly less likely to know a young person who had no place to stay than youth between 16 and 21 (46 percent of younger youth compared to 59 percent of older). The majority said that these disconnected peers were sleeping on friend’s couches, sometimes a different couch every night, though some respondents also described friends in shelters, friends who had lived in cars, in cheap motels, and even in a skate park for a short period.

Employment and Transportation


Almost a third of survey respondents between 16 and 21 said transportation was either ‘impossible’
or very difficult for them to find.

In the NEK, nearly half of survey respondents ages 16-21 said they wanted a job but couldn’t find one, and 14% more said they had a low-paying, dead-end job and wanted something better. Young people were also asked to name the type of jobs they wish were available for people their age in the area. It was an open-ended question, allowing respondents to answer in their own words and list as many types of jobs as they wished. While many young people answered generically, asking for more of ‘any type’ of job, or for ‘fun’ jobs, the most frequent response was for more internships or ‘career ladder’ jobs that would lead to future employment. Others were more specific, naming jobs in the arts, journalism, emergency or human services, mechanical or building trades, and natural resource management.

Transportation in rural areas can be a significant obstacle to employment or education, especially for young people moving out on their own but unable to afford a car. Almost a third of survey respondents between 16 and 21 said transportation was either ‘impossible’ or very difficult for them to find. When asked what an ideal transportation system for people their age would look like, most said they would be able to buy a car of their own. Surprisingly, a higher percentage of females than males (65 percent compared to 54 percent) said they wanted a vehicle of their own.

Click the chart to see the data.

The Future and Chances for Success


The majority of 16- to 21-year-olds thought making it on their own in the NEK would be ‘pretty hard’
or ‘practically impossible.’

In many ways, the primary business of adolescence is finding a successful door into adulthood. The difficulty of that task varies from place to place depending, among other things, on local resources and opportunities. Our findings suggest that the majority of young people in the NEK are optimistic about their chances for success in the community. Yet, when we separate responses of youth 16 and older, a less optimistic attitude emerges. The majority of 16- to 21-year-olds thought making it on their own in the NEK would be ‘pretty hard’ or ‘practically impossible,’ and many more anticipated needing at least some help to do it. More females were anxious about their ability to be independent than males (72 percent compared to 63 percent).

Many young people leave their hometowns for college or work; it is a natural and appropriate step in personal development. But if large numbers of young people leave for good, towns will become less economically viable over time. The drain of young people is a source of concern for several states in New England, including Vermont. Slightly over half of respondents said they definitely planned to leave the NEK in the coming years, while only 13% said they definitely planned to stay. The rest say they will simply need to wait and see if jobs become available for them.

Click the chart to see the data.

How to Improve Life for Youth in the NEK


Young people made a total of 1,158 recommendations on how to improve their communities.

Survey respondents were asked to make three suggestions each about how to improve life for people their age in the NEK; in all, they made a total of 1,158 recommendations. Responses were organized under broad categories. The top five most frequently cited areas for improvement were: more fun things to do; more safe, drug-free public spaces where young people can congregate; more retail options; better infrastructure; and more job opportunities appropriate for young people. The suggestions for more job opportunities included more internships and other ways to explore careers.

Conclusion


While it is typical for local initiatives to target only young people thought to be ‘at risk,’ these findings suggest that municipalities should design broader approaches that instead seek to impact the largest number of young people possible.

Not surprisingly, young people vary in their interests and aspirations. All of them, however, are in the process of exploring and developing their adult potential, and it is in the best interests of communities to help them do so. In this survey project, young people in the Northeast Kingdom area of Vermont voiced some of the frustrations common to young people everywhere, including a desire for independence and more to do. But many complaints more serious in nature are specific to the isolated area in which they live: poor local infrastructure, inadequate transportation, inadequate opportunities for exploring future careers, and a sense of disconnection from opportunities available elsewhere. Large numbers of young people also complained about the prevalence of drug and alcohol use, and lack of spaces they regard as ‘safe’ for people their age. These concerns were striking because they were voiced by such a wide range of youth — youth of different ages, from different towns and schools, and from obviously different economic circumstances. While it is typical for local initiatives to target only ‘at-risk’ young people, these findings suggest that municipalities design broader approaches that instead seek to impact the largest number of young people possible.

Sources

1 United States Department of Agricultural Rural Development. (2009). Northeast Kingdom REAP Zone. Retrieved from http://www.rurdev.usda.gov/BCP-EZEC-REAP-NEK.html
2 United States Census Bureau. (2009). State and County QuickFacts, Vermont. Retrieved from http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/50000.html
3 Snyder, A. & McLauglin, D. (2008). Rural youth more likely to be idle. Carsey Institute, University of New Hampshire: Durham, NH. Retrieved from http://www.carseyinstitute.unh.edu/publications/FS_RuralYouth_08.pdf
4 Kronkosky Charitable Foundation. (2010, November). At Risk Youth in Rural Counties: Issue Brief. Retrieved from http://www.kronkosky.org/research/Research_Briefs/At%20Risk%20Youth%20in%20Rural%20Counties%20November%202010.pdf

This brief was produced by Jennifer A. Smith and Melanie Wilson.