“Fewer teens have summer jobs” — St. Cloud (Minn.) Times
“Summer bummer: Jobs scarce” — Detroit Free Press
“Finding good summer jobs is hard work” — KATV Little Rock
“Feds slash city youth jobs program” — AM New York

We see these headlines every year. It’s always been hard for young people to find jobs. In the 1960s, the federal government began a summer jobs program for youth. In 1999, the program provided 500,000 jobs at the cost of $871 million. The next year, the Republican Congress effectively ended the program.

In July 1999, 55 percent of youth aged 16-19 held at least a part-time job. The next year, there were 482,000 fewer jobs — almost the exact number lost from the summer jobs program. Then, the recession hit. Jobs dried up, and they have been slow to return. Last July, teen employment was only 45 percent — a drop of 10 percentage points, or 1.6 million jobs, compared with 1999.

The social cost of doing nothing

A few years ago, a New Haven, Conn., police lieutenant told my block watch that he was trying to find summer jobs for 15 “problem” youth. But with the cuts in funding, he was only able to place five. This year, lack of jobs and youth programs has been cited as a key factor in a rash of shootings involving teenagers.

In 2000, the U.S. Conference of Mayors urged reinstatement of the federal summer jobs program. The mayors said the program cost “returns many times over in reduced welfare dependence, fewer crimes, lower incarceration expenses, and greater workforce productivity.”

The lack of summer jobs casts a long shadow. Summer work is often the first step on a lifetime jobs ladder. Andrew Sum, an economist who studies youth job markets at Northeastern University, explains, “How do you learn [to work]? You spend time in the workplace. Fewer kids are getting serious work experience during their high school years.”

Wanted: 3.2 million summer jobs

In 1988, 64 percent of white teens had summer jobs. The number dropped during the recession of 1990, and again after 1999. But it is likely that the same 64 percent would be working this year, if jobs were readily available.

Many African American and Latino youth live in neighborhoods with few job openings, and face many levels of discrimination in applying for jobs. Given equal opportunity, they would certainly be employed at the same or higher levels as white youth. But opportunities are not equal. In 2006, only 27 percent of African American teens and 37 percent of Latino teens had summer jobs, compared with 50 percent of white teens.

In order to reach 64 percent employment for all youth aged 16-19, 3.2 million additional jobs are needed this summer. African American and Latino youth would have the biggest benefit, more than doubling employment rates. But an additional 1.8 million white teens would also find work.

Broad community benefits

Young people have energy, creativity and talents that should not be wasted. In New Haven’s summer jobs program, kids who start out in routine, entry-level jobs often take on greater responsibilities to match their abilities. In Oakland, Calif., a local initiative is training young people for jobs in “green” industries.

Imagine a federal Youth Jobs Administration (YJA) that would invite every city and state department, high school, national park and nonprofit to prepare a plan to use youth power. A YJA could pay the wages of the teens and their supervisors, and provide funds for overhead, planning and materials. Here are a few ideas:

• Canvass neighborhoods door-to-door to survey community needs and problems, and inform residents of city programs and services.

• Organize community-based cleanups, beautification, block parties, neighborhood watches.

• Serve as counselors for programs for younger kids.

• Work on maintenance, new construction and landscaping at city parks.

• Design and implement web sites and other computer infrastructure for municipal agencies, nonprofits and small businesses.

It would cost about $8 billion to provide a summer job for every teenager who wants one. That’s 3-1/2 weeks of the Iraq war.

It would cost only $4 billion to bring jobs back to their 1998 level. As a community activist in New Haven pointed out, that’s about what Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spends every year spreading fear and breaking up families by arresting, jailing and deporting undocumented workers.

Jobs or war? Jobs or fear? Which would you choose?

economics @cpusa.org