Nothing Stops a Bullet Like a Job

The short-term benefit is money in their pockets. The long-term benefits are improved educational, employment and health outcomes and reduced drug/alcohol use, arrest rates for violent crime and incarceration. Summer jobs for youth do more than save kids from boredom during their time off from school.


After generally trending downward since 1989, the labor force participation rate for youth started to climb a bit in 2010 and has since been around about 60%. Despite recent increases in the number of summer jobs for young adults, the demand is still higher than the supply.. This past February, the Department of Labor announced $20 million in grants to expand the summer jobs programs into career pathways for youth. These efforts build on other programs meant for low-income at-risk youth, such as the My Brother’s Keeper initiative.


There are a number of summer jobs programs around the country, including in such cities as Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles. Programs are also available in rural areas as well, such as in Minnesota. These programs target youth between ages 14 to 24 years. Youth in L.A. are provided with work experience for 6 weeks, paid $10.50 an hour and work approximately a total of 120 hours (20 hours a week). The employers pay the teens their salary, but they are reimbursed with federal and state funding. But, summer job programs provide much more than a paycheck, especially for low-income, at-risk teens, who can benefit from the program in a myriad of ways.


The National Bureau of Economic Research researched the outcomes associated with the New York City Summer Youth Employment Program, which is the largest employment program in the country. The researchers looked at three years of program participant data, tax records, incarceration data and death records. They found that program participation results in increases in average earnings and the probability of employment in the year of program participation. Participation also decreased the probability of incarceration by a 10 percent reduction relative to the baseline incarceration rate and decreased the probability of mortality by a 20 percent reduction relative to the baseline mortality rate. That’s impressive for a relatively inexpensive program!


In Chicago, a randomized control trial from 2014 found that participation in a program called One Summer Plus reduced violent crime arrests by 43% over a 16-month period compared to the control group. Participants were high school students from disadvantaged neighborhoods in Chicago, worked for 8 weeks for 25 hours a week and were paid minimum wage of $8.25 per hour. The youth were assigned job mentors (about 10 mentees per mentor). Half the participants worked 15-hour weeks and received 10 hours of social-emotional learning. However, interestingly, there was not a difference between the group that received the therapy and those that didn’t, suggesting that students working longer hours also acquired some of the same social-emotional skills on the job or that the therapy was ineffective. However, we know from our own analysis that cognitive behavioral therapy for juveniles, which this study based its therapy off of, helps to reduce arrests. Regardless, the program had a lasting impact, reducing arrests for violent crimes even up to a year after the program ended. A notable theory from their findings was that prevention of violence, by offering summer jobs while teens were still in school, rather than remediation, when they’re already out of school and struggling in the labor market, can improve outcomes more effectively, with less intensive treatment.


These programs can also help with outcomes that are more difficult to quantify, but are still important, such as building self-confidence, communication skills to interact with strangers, and learning which aspects of a job they like and dislike to inform a future career.


Despite the many benefits, the documentation required for such programs can be enough to cause some teens to give up before they start. Especially for the most at-need ones, who may lack home stability and the support necessary to help locate and obtain their social security card, working papers, proof of family income and other necessary documents. If the summer jobs programs can work with these particular youth, the employment programs would be likely to reach a targeted niche of the most at-risk kids.


The summer youth employment programs that target at-risk kids not only helps them and their families financially, but extends beyond that to prevent arrests and improve educational and health outcomes. It’s one of those ‘Win-Win’ interventions that have benefits for multiple sectors and stakeholders.

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