This summer in New Haven, Conn., my neighborhood block watch held a meeting in response to a series of car break-ins. The police lieutenant told us he talked with 16 kids who were likely to cause trouble in the neighborhood, and they all needed jobs. The lieutenant called all the local businesses, but only two jobs came through.

It wasn’t only New Haven, one of the nation’s poorest cities. Around the country, these were the headlines:

“A Dry Summer for Teen Jobs” (Los Angeles Times); “Slim Pickings for Teen Workers” (The Seattle Times); “Teen Jobs Dry Up as Economy Shrinks” (Rocky Mountain News).

In Ventura County, Calif., subsidized jobs for youth were cut from 1,000 in previous years to 435 this summer. In San Diego County, where $8.6 million from federal programs used to provide summer jobs for 9,300 teens, the funds have dried up, along with most of the jobs. In Denver, employers were being much more choosy than last year, and a government program to help teens find summer jobs showed a 25 percent increase in demand.

Everywhere, the picture was the same. Job openings were scarce because of the recession. Laid-off adult workers competed with teens for private-sector summer jobs. And lack of federal funds, combined with state and local budget crises, meant far fewer government jobs. This was the worst summer-job market in 37 years.

The result was 1.6 million teens (16-19 years old) officially unemployed. Another 7 million were not counted because they weren’t looking for work, but many of them want and need jobs.

I talked to a group of high school students from Action for Community Enterprises (ACES), a youth group in central Harlem, where summer jobs are rare. If funds were available, they said, there’s plenty of work for them in their own community – cleaning up the neighborhood, and staffing recreation centers and summer camps for younger kids. “Kids just hang out in the park. They could be doing something. Most would want to work. They want to help the little kids,” one student said.

Young people need summer jobs, and the nation as a whole would benefit from providing them. There are social benefits – fewer car break-ins in my neighborhood and, more broadly, giving young people the experience and financial resources to be productive workers or good students. Beyond this, we need the energy and creativity that young people can contribute.

For example, Roger Kennedy, a former director of the National Park Service, has called for “an army of young people to restore health to our fire-prone [forests],” clearing brush and dead trees. Environmental work would only be the start. Government agencies at all levels and in all regions could make good use of young workers.

Some news stories explain youth unemployment as a lifestyle choice. “Growing numbers [of teens] are choosing to spend their summers hanging out at the beach, taking classes or doing unpaid internships,” according to one story. But most working-class youth need to save thousands of dollars over the summer if they want to attend college in the fall. Even when they find a job, the pay is often $7 per hour or less.

Working summers in the mid 1960s, I usually earned the minimum wage of $1.25 to $1.60 per hour, and sometimes as high as $3 per hour for union factory jobs. That’s equivalent to between $7.50 and $15.00 per hour today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the cost of tuition, room and board has risen more than 10 times in the last 35 years. A college student would have to earn between $13 and $30 per hour to do as well as I did in 1965 and 1966 – and I came up short at the end of the summer.

The summer of 2002 is over, but candidates for the November congressional elections should make a firm commitment for next year. If funds were available, cities and towns, states, and federal agencies could be making plans for projects to be completed next summer. A million teenagers, along with 200,000 older youth could be employed at good wages, and our country would be a more beautiful, friendly and safer place. It would cost about $10 billion – far less than Bush’s military buildup, and would bring benefit instead of harm.

The author can be reached at arthur.perlo@pobox.com

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CONTRIBUTOR

Bruce Bostick
Bruce Bostick

Bruce Bostick is a retired steelworker and labor activist in Ohio.

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