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Young adults in a library representing the opportunities to redefine the life trajectories of America’s impoverished young adults

Poverty: Opportunities for Youth

Redefining the life trajectories of America’s impoverished young adults

A 16-year-old drops out of high school because she can’t afford to purchase the required uniform. A teenager lives in a car after he and his family lose their home. Still another is juggling the demands of school with being a single mom. Nearly 14% of the U.S. population lives in poverty, defined as making an annual income of less than $24,600 for a family of four. The effects are long-lasting: Individuals living in poverty are more likely to experience violence, be in foster care, drop out of high school, be unemployed, develop type 2 diabetes, and rely on social services. Youth are the most vulnerable; one out of every five kids under the age of 18 in the U.S. lives in such scarcity.

On their own, the numbers may sound depressing. But there is hope. In this section, we focus on poverty as it specifically affects young adults, and by extension, their children. We do so because intervention at this stage presents an exceptional opportunity to shift life trajectories and potentially break the cycle of impoverishment.

In the following pages we highlight five organizations that connect particularly vulnerable young people—youth aging out of foster care; unemployed and under-skilled young adults; those returning from prison; high school dropouts; and young, first time (often single) parents—to opportunities and support systems that promote greater personal and economic stability.

New research indicates that our brains are not fully formed until we reach our early 20s—a fact that helps explain some dubious decision-making among teens and young adults. It also means that there is room to build in better mental habits and behaviors. If young adults are more stable, personally and economically, not only do they benefit, but so do any current or eventual children who have a better shot at growing up in a supportive environment.

In supporting the work of the organizations mentioned below, donors can help young people at critical stages of their lives and assist them in reaching their untapped potential. As one such young adult described her transformation from high school dropout (because she couldn’t afford the uniform) to exotic dancer to salutatorian of YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School’s Class of 2014: “I really wish you could meet all the young people I know. Because, to you, my story is so amazing. But it’s a life that I’m used to. It’s all I know. If you think I’m amazing, I wish you could invest and see the people I know, because they are phenomenal.”

This article was excerpted from the Center for High Impact Philanthropy's “2017 High Impact Giving Guide,” sponsored in part by Fidelity Charitable's Trustees' Initiative. The guide features specific high-impact giving opportunities, handpicked by the center and analyzed for evidence of impact and cost-effectiveness, as well as more ways to improve the effectiveness of your giving.

The Center for High Impact Philanthropy is a multidisciplinary, nonprofit center housed at the University of Pennsylvania. The center provides actionable and evidence-based guidance for individuals who want to ensure that their philanthropy makes the greatest possible difference in the lives of others.

Download the full report

Please note that this article does not represent all the organizations that address education. Fidelity Charitable does not endorse these organizations and provides this list for reference purposes only. All grant recommendations are subject to review and approval by the Fidelity Charitable Trustees.

1YouthBuild Philadelphia is part of the national Youthbuild network.

Next area for high-impact giving: Education

Learn other philanthropy can level the educational playing field for low income children.

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Opportunities to make an impact

Work study


Learn about Year Up and how effective it is.

Transition to adulthood


Learn about Youth Villages/YVLifeSet and how effective it is.



Learn about The Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) and how effective it is.

Rebuilding communities


Learn about YouthBuild Philadelphia and how effective it is.

Essential support


Learn about Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP) and how effective it is.

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