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.
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