Blog Post

How Summer Jobs Programs Can Help Reduce Inequality Among Youth

A lack of early work experience can negatively affect employment and earnings later in life, yet the U.S. unemployment rate for teens remains high. At 11% as of July 2018, the rate is two to three times higher than for any other group. Over half of unemployed teens report that they are searching for their first job, which suggests that fewer pathways to the labor market exist. African American and Hispanic teens face the greatest difficulties—especially those from low-income families in impoverished neighborhoods.

Policymakers in many large U.S. cities use summer employment programs to level the playing field for low-income inner city youth. Since its inception in the mid-1990s, the Boston Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) has grown to become a national model. Bringing together nearly $10 million in city, state, and private funding per year, the program connects about 10,000 youth with roughly 900 local employers each summer. It is designed to provide at-risk youth with career readiness instruction, greater exposure to private-sector employers and job skill ladders.

With funding from the William T. Grant Foundation, I have been engaged in a multi-year evaluation with the Boston Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development to assess the impact of the city’s summer jobs program on criminal justice, academic, and employment outcomes. The focus is on reducing inequality across groups.

Since more youth apply to Boston SYEP than the number of jobs available, participation is by lottery. This allows us to randomly compare participants to applicants who did not win spots. We have developed a survey, administered immediately before and after the program, to measure short-term behavioral changes in social skills, community engagement, job readiness and academic aspirations. Longer term criminal justice, education and employment outcomes are also evaluated.

Short-Term Behavioral Changes

In the survey, SYEP participants reported increases in community engagement, social skills, college aspirations and job readiness skills. Many outcomes were significantly better than those of the control group. The largest gains were observed for non-white youth, suggesting that Boston’s SYEP may have the capacity to reduce inequality across demographic groups.

Community Engagement and Social Skills
After completing the program, participants were far more likely to report that they felt connected to their neighborhood. They were more likely to report knowing how to manage their emotions, ask for help, and constructively resolve peer conflict. Improvements in social skills were observed primarily among African American males.

Academic Aspirations
By summer’s end, participants were more likely to report that they wanted to attend a four-year college as opposed to a vocational program, training program or two-year college. The largest impact was found for African American and Hispanic females.

Job Readiness Skills
The pre-post survey showed large increases in the number of participants reporting that they had prepared a resume and a cover letter, asked an adult for help finding job opportunities, developed answers to common job interview questions and practiced interviewing skills with an adult. African American males showed the most improvement across the board.

Longer Term Outcomes

Our analysis of long-term administrative records found significantly decreased criminal activity, and increased school attendance, among program participants relative to the control group. There was little improvement in employment and wage outcomes. Across most measures, larger improvements in outcomes were observed only among non-white or at-risk youth.

Criminal Justice Outcomes
After participating in the Boston SYEP, criminal arraignments among the treatment group relative to the control group decreased by 35% for violent crimes and 29% for property crimes. This reduction continued to fall through the 17-month observation period. The greatest reductions in arraignments were observed among males and those who had previously faced arraignment.

Academic Outcomes
During the year after participation, school attendance for the treatment group was significantly higher than for the control group (+2.7 percentage points), largely due to fewer unexcused absences (-4.5 days). While there was no significant impact on GPA, the percentage of participants failing a course was significantly lower than that of the control group (-15.3 percentage points) during the same period.

Employment Outcomes
Although employment and wage rates were higher for SYEP participants during the year after the program, they were not significantly different for the control group. Employment increased more rapidly among youth who reported improved job readiness skills. Employment and wages were higher for African American males age 19-24 relative to the control group.

In future research we aim to pinpoint which program features matter most: subsidized versus non-subsidized jobs, the number of summers of participation, whether the program includes career readiness training, and other elements.

Expanding the Reach of Summer Jobs Programs

Despite encouraging results, little has been done to expand summer jobs programs. In Boston, only one in four youth who do not win a SYEP slot finds a job on their own. With very limited help from the federal government, cities continue to search for alternative sources of funding.

Despite the price tag of roughly $2,000 per participant, SYEP benefits exceed program costs and offer advantages for youth, families and entire communities. Summer jobs provide experience that can lead to future employment or post-secondary education. SYEPs provide income to teens, one in five of whom help cover household expenses. SYEPs also supply community-based programs (such as summer camps) with low-cost workers, which in turn provides inexpensive daycare to working parents.

Summer jobs programs can help reduce youth inequality across multiple dimensions. In addition to improving the Boston program, we hope our research helps other U.S. cities develop similar initiatives.

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