But recent research on the programs’ effectiveness shows that, while mayors tend to emphasize the benefits of early work experience, simply enrolling tens of thousands more kids doesn’t solve long-term employment problems.
Summer-jobs programs have gone in and out of favor over the past several decades. They became popular in the 1960s, when elected officials raised concerns that poor communities had been cut off from economic opportunity. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson pushed for the creation of a Neighborhood Youth Corps, which reserved federal funding to hire teens for summer jobs and other work experience, as part of his War on Poverty. He characterized anti-poverty efforts as “a struggle to give people a chance ... to allow them to develop and use their capacities, as we have been allowed to develop and use ours, so that they can share, as others share, in the promise of the nation.”
Under Bill Clinton—who participated in federal summer-jobs programs as a young adult—funding for stand-alone summer programs dried up, replaced by an emphasis on year-round youth services. Without federal support, enrollment in summer-jobs programs dropped an estimated 50 to 90 percent from nearly 600,000 people per year in the 1990s. Then, in 2009, under Obama, the federal stimulus package provided $1.2 billion to states for youth employment and training, with an emphasis on summer-jobs programs to address high teen unemployment during the recession. About 300,000 students, including 8,000 in Chicago, took part that summer.
More recently, though, only small amounts of federal funding have been available for summer jobs, so mayors are cobbling together money from their budgets, philanthropists, and corporations, to place young people into subsidized jobs at government agencies, nonprofits, and small and large businesses.
One Summer Chicago began in 2011, shortly after Emanuel was first elected. Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services, which runs the program, will spend $17 million on it this year, supplemented by funding from other city agencies and corporate partnerships; the investments subsidize wages and help cover operating expenses. Across Chicago, high-school students and other young people will paint murals, plant gardens, and answer phones in offices, among many other tasks. Emanuel, who is running for a third term next year, said he wants to make Chicago’s program the largest in the nation, though he said his office is reaching its limits. Mayors have pressed the federal government to earmark more funding for summer jobs, but they’ve had little success. “Without federal or state assistance, I cannot grow it,” Emanuel told me. “I need the federal government and the state to become a partner.”
Most recruitment for the summer-jobs program happens through the public high schools, and Emanuel said students who participate in One Summer Chicago sign a pledge committing to apply to college. While there are many teens and young adults who are neither in school nor working, city officials said those young people need more support than a short-term summer job can provide. Lisa Morrison Butler, the commissioner of the Department of Family and Support Services, told me, “This is not designed as a program for acutely disconnected youth.”