Summer Jobs Programs Aren't Enough

Ensuring teens are employed for six-week stints can keep them out of trouble, but that doesn’t always mean long-term employment success.

A female lifeguard overlooks the ocean
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On a bright, hot afternoon in early July, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel stood in the backyard of Le Penseur, a youth-and-family-services center on the South Side, and dipped a brush into sky-blue paint. He filled in a stripe of the Chicago flag sketched on a wooden box resembling an oversized birdhouse. More unfinished boxes sat on tables surrounding the yard. He was surrounded by a group of teenagers who will paint the boxes, fill them with donated books, and install them around the city as free lending libraries, as part of One Summer Chicago, a city-sponsored summer-jobs program. “We need something to bring people together,” Emanuel said.

Over the past few years, U.S. mayors such as Emanuel have been pushing to revive city summer-jobs programs, despite little federal support. The city programs place young people—typically ages 14 to 24, usually chosen by lottery—into subsidized jobs for six to eight weeks at government agencies, nonprofits, and businesses. The mayors are concerned about persistent youth unemployment, especially among young people of color. The hope is that if young people start working while they are students, they will build networks with mentors and employers who will keep them engaged with school and careers. And so, in some of the biggest cities in the United States, mayors are expanding the programs rapidly: Chicago went from 14,000 participants in 2011 to 32,000 this year, New York from over 47,000 in 2014 to nearly 70,000 last year.

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.”

The push for summer jobs is happening at a time when a far smaller proportion of teens are working overall than in previous decades. The employment-to-population ratio for 16-to-19-year-olds was 43 percent in July 2016, well below the peak, for the month of July, of nearly 72 percent in 1978. That’s partly because many more teenagers are in summer school now than in previous decades: 42 percent were enrolled in classes in July 2016, compared with only 10 percent in July 1985 (the first year for which such data is available). But, especially for non-white youth in areas that have seen steady job losses over recent decades, it could also have to do with a dearth of opportunities. In Chicago, in particular, the decline of the manufacturing industry since 1960 has made it harder for young people in much of the city to find work, according to a study by the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In 2015, the study said, 20- to 24-year-olds were worse off in Chicago than they were in 1960.

Even now, as unemployment has reached historic lows nationwide, young people in Chicago are not catching up. As factories disappeared, jobs concentrated in the city’s downtown instead of being distributed throughout the neighborhoods. Many jobs available today are either in professional services or are relatively poorly paid retail positions. Hiring bias based on race persists. In some areas, public transportation is lacking, making commutes difficult. (The city plans to extend its El train system to the far South Side by around 2026, better connecting people to downtown, but it is still working out funding details.)

At Emanuel’s Chicago event, Mychael Thompson, an 18-year-old with thin braids and a slight build, watched as the mayor circulated among the students, who wore gray T-shirts bearing the One Summer Chicago logo. Thompson is helping build the small lending libraries. “A lot of things happen on the streets now, so if you give kids something to do, their mind set won’t be on other things,” he told me.

Thompson lives in Roseland, a South Side neighborhood where community activists have tried to counter a lack of resources with a number of efforts including nonprofit organizations that develop affordable housing and counsel first-time home buyers. Its stretch of Michigan Avenue used to be a thriving commercial district, but blockbusting by real-estate agents and large factory closures damaged its economy. In the 1980s, Barack Obama briefly worked in Roseland as a community organizer. More recently, Chicago State University, where the poet Gwendolyn Brooks once taught, nearly shut down because of delayed state funding. The murder rate in Roseland is among the highest in the city. (Homicides throughout Chicago declined 15 percent last year, following a 58 percent increase in 2016 to more than 750 deaths.)

Asked what people get wrong about teenagers, Thompson said they “put bad things on kids, like they say they’re not going to be something, especially in the Roseland neighborhood,” he told me. “I just want them to know we’ve got kids who are really smart, really intelligent, doing really good things.”

Summer jobs make teens’ lives better in one important way: There is evidence that they reduce violence. In 2017, the University of Chicago Urban Labs released a study of One Summer Chicago Plus, a subset of the summer jobs program. In addition to job placements, participants in the 2013 Plus program worked with mentors and received cognitive-behavioral training to improve their goal-setting and conflict-management skills. The researchers found the 2013 program, which recruited students from high-violence neighborhoods and accepted referrals from criminal-justice agencies, reduced violent-crime arrests of participants by 33 percent for the following year. After two to three years, they still had 20 percent fewer arrests for violent crime. Because the decreased violence persisted beyond the short-term summer program, there seemed to be more of a benefit than simply keeping young people busy. (Arrests for property crime went up, which, according to the researchers, may be because participants travel to wealthier neighborhoods with more opportunities for theft.)

The researchers suggest that the young people in the program may have had fewer opportunities to fight, and that their job experiences and social training could have helped them learn to reduce conflicts outside of work. Studies of the summer jobs programs in Boston and New York City found similar reductions in crime.

It’s less clear that summer-jobs programs, as currently designed, make teens significantly more employable. The University of Chicago researchers found no overall improvement in school attendance or employment for the One Summer Chicago Plus participants. However, one subgroup of young people—who were younger, more engaged in school, more likely to be Hispanic, and less likely to have been arrested—had a 14-percentage-point increase in employment.

Other research shows similar findings. Studies of the New York City program found a small increase in the share of participants passing statewide high school exams and an increase in school attendance. Another study of the New York program, though, reported no improvement in long-term employment.

Martha Ross, a Brookings fellow who has conducted and analyzed research on summer-jobs programs, suggests that while the benefits of reduced crime are important, the programs may be too short to meaningfully help teens prepare for careers. Also, she notes, it is difficult to ensure that thousands of young people scattered across job sites are all having a productive experience. She has called for more research on measures such as having teens leave their summer jobs with references or letters of recommendation, and providing more intensive mentorship and training.

Some cities are experimenting with these ideas, evaluating smaller projects that aim to better prepare young people for careers. New York City has Ladders for Leaders, a more-competitive summer internship program that serves roughly 2,000 students, and that trains them on skills such as resumé-writing. Nearly a third of the Ladders for Leaders participants last year got offers to continue working with companies after the six-week summer program ended. In Chicago, Morrison Butler, the city commissioner, has pushed to offer more professional work experience. “If we’re really going to accommodate the tens of thousands of kids that apply that we can’t accept, we’re going to have to be purposeful, and try to build stronger links into the private sector,” she says.

This year, 1,000 students in One Summer Chicago are are involved in a pilot program that is meant to graduate them into private-industry jobs. In this first summer, in addition to working, they will complete basic online training about choosing a career path and preparing to succeed at their jobs. Next year, they will return for more-advanced training in the same field, meant to show potential employers that they are ready for entry-level, private-sector work in the third year. For example, a student interested in health care might work a city job in that industry for two summers, then use that preparation to transition to a job in a privately operated hospital the following summer. That will introduce new challenges: Adding skills training and mentorship requires more resources per student than simply connecting someone with a short-term job. To be successful, it also requires deeper involvement from companies. Many businesses have been happy to donate money but more reluctant to hire students directly from summer-jobs programs.

Morrison Butler hopes the students’ added training will translate into lasting employment gains, but her expectations are measured. “We’re talking about a six- to seven-week youth summer employment program,” she said. “It’s not intended to cure world hunger.”