My first job saw me walking the streets at rosy-fingered dawn, tossing newspapers onto the still stoops of West Windsor, New Jersey. A couple of years later, summer found me behind the counter of a video store, reminding people to rewind and slowly losing my mind as The Lion King played on an infinite loop on the store’s TVs during my shift. Then there was the summer after freshman year, when, desperate for work, I responded to an unpromising ad for an unpromising job selling kitchen knives door to door. I got the gig, but, before my first sales run, I was offered another job, this one reading manuscripts for a local literary agent. Thus ended my one-day career as the Ricky Roma of cutlery.
These were just a few of the proud entries that studded that first resume—that sad sapling of a CV that you bloated with big font and gussied up with fancy ways of saying “shelved,” “served,” and “pushed buttons on a register.” The jobs I had were like many summer jobs. They paid poorly, they were hardly stimulating, and they served primarily to fill the empty space on that sheet of paper.
But I look back fondly on those experiences. Those jobs may have paid a pittance, but that pittance was enough for gas money and nights out with friends. More than that, they also helped develop (sometimes against one’s will, and sleep cycle) traits and habits I would come to need later in life—punctuality, responsibility, initiative, and the patience to put up with paying customers.
Perhaps it’s because we associate summer jobs with youth and frivolity that we’ve never given them much thought, both as a source of individual development and as a segment of the broader economy. But that thankless stint scooping butter pecan ice cream on the boardwalk is more consequential than you think.
More than just a rite of passage and a source of pocket money, the summer job has far-reaching effects, both on the teenagers who hold them and on society at large. And as summer youth employment enters another uncertain season after the Great Recession, from which it’s never really recovered, it’s time to turn our attention to this oft-ignored segment of the labor market. For here’s something in the policy toolkit that can address a host of problems that we have been obsessing over: poverty, inequality, mobility, workforce development. Once a focus of federal lawmakers but now forgotten, summer jobs programs are that rare thing in this era of policy dysfunction: They’re low-hanging fruit ripe for the plucking.
This month, millions of teens will dip their toes into the grown-up world of work. What they’ll likely find is a labor market that isn’t especially welcoming. Last summer, youth employment plummeted to a near 60-year low. Part of the explanation for the downturn is the Great Recession. The recession wiped out millions of jobs, for both teens and adults. As the economy has recovered—slowly—the entry-level jobs that used to go to teens have been taken by more experienced workers. The single mom in her thirties has been competing with the 16-year-old student for the chance to ask if you’d like fries with that.
But the recession isn’t the sole culprit for the decline of the summer job. Even before the meltdown of 2008, summer youth employment had already been dropping off. In 1999, the summer employment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds was 53 percent. Five years later, it was down to 43 percent. By 2009, it was 34 percent. In 2014, it was lower than 33 percent.
Researchers have offered several explanations for the long-term falloff: automation, the decline of certain industries especially friendly to teen workers, older Americans staying in the workforce longer, the rise of volunteering and unpaid internships, the growing popularity of summer school and test prep. Whatever the reasons, the result has been the slow-motion erosion of a bedrock of what economists call “human capital development.” Those summer jobs are teenagers’ first encounter with adulthood. Looking potential employers in the eye, answering their questions, behaving professionally in the workplace, taking orders, dealing with the public, sometimes under stress—these soft skills are the keystones for educational and professional growth.
Which is why the disappearance of the summer job has been alarming. “This is the first generation that will not have major work experience as part of their adolescent development,” University of Minnesota sociologist Jeylan Mortimer told The Boston Globe. “This raises major concerns.”
The concerns are even graver for low-income and minority students. Studies have shown that white teenagers from wealthy households are more likely to have these jobs than their minority, low-income counterparts. One recent study found that, in the summer of 2013, white male teens from high-income families were five times more likely to be employed than black male teens from low-income families. And as you might expect, teen employment is associated with future employment. A 2014 Brookings study of the largest 100 metro areas found that teens who worked between one and 13 weeks in one year had a 33-percentage-point higher likelihood of employment the following year.
In other words, the summer teen labor market mimics what has been troubling about our upside-down economy: The ones who need the least help get the most out of the status quo, and see their advantages compound over time.
But the decline of the summer job affects not just the future job prospects of those who don’t have one. The effects ripple out to the local community and the broader society. A National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper published in December 2014 studied the effects of New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), the largest such program in the country. The program is funded entirely by the New York City government, which pays for the wages of SYEP participants, who are offered jobs at a variety of workplaces, the majority of which are in the nonprofit private sector. The study confirmed that SYEP raised incomes with only a modest crowding-out of other earnings. (The evidence of effects on future earnings was more equivocal.) In low-income communities, such programs amount to a vital infusion of money into a sluggish local economy.
Moreover, those same communities benefit from the type of services summer jobs programs provide. In SYEP’s case, the most common jobs that teens sign up for are at summer camps and day-care centers—the kind of services that can help the working parents in those communities.
Beyond poverty alleviation and community services, such programs have other noteworthy impacts. One common hypothesis about summer jobs is that they keep kids out of trouble. The NBER study seemed to confirm this, finding that New York City’s SYEP led to a substantial decrease in the probability of incarceration and mortality for participants. Meanwhile, another study, also focused on SYEP, found that summer employment led to increases in school attendance, with the effect greater among at-risk youth.
New York isn’t the only major city that has found wide success with its summer jobs program. Chicago’s One Summer Plus program has offered summer jobs and mentoring to teens from some of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. A study of the program’s effectiveness published in Science last December found that students randomly assigned to participate in the program saw 43 percent fewer arrests for violent crimes compared to students in the control group. And another study from 2013 found that a summer jobs program in Boston seemed to reduce risky behavior—drug and alcohol use, vandalism—among participants.
What’s disappointing about the state of the summer job is that even as the literature about its benefits has grown, the interest from Washington has only waned. The last great hurrah for youth employment at the federal level was the 2009 stimulus, which funneled $1.2 billion into employment programs for underprivileged youth—but that was a one-time boost necessitated by the recession. The funds created some 350,000 jobs for young people, but then dried up, never to be renewed.
Indeed, sustained attention to the problem of youth employment has been missing for a while now. For decades up until the turn of the century, the federal government was a lot more active on this front. The War on Poverty provided federal money for summer jobs for low-income youth, with programs like the Neighborhood Youth Corps, and the federal role only intensified under Carter. In 1982, the government established the Summer Youth Employment Training Program, which targeted low-income youths. But by 2000, federal funding for summer jobs programs had all but ended. Post-stimulus, the most noteworthy act at the federal level came last year, when President Obama announced a relatively paltry $107 million in grants to support summer programs. There is little sign that a vigorous, sustained federal effort on summer youth employment will be revived.
Steep though the odds may be, progressives need to refocus the federal government’s attention on the promise of summer youth employment. One such proposal, put forward in a 2014 Brookings paper by Amy Ellen Schwartz and Jacob Leos-Urbel, calls for a summer jobs program for low-income youth funded by the federal government and administered by state and local governments. Implemented on a multiyear pilot program basis, such a program could cost as little as $300 million per year in its first years (and up to $3 billion, depending on how comprehensive it ends up being). Assuming a take-up rate of 30 percent among the nation’s five million low-income 16- to 19-year-olds, that means about 1.5 million teens at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder will benefit.
But we don’t have to rely solely on Washington. As the survey of studies above suggests, many major cities in the United States have done a decent job of funding and implementing these programs. Considering how receptive city governments already are, progressives at the state and local level should make expanding summer youth employment a focal point of their policy lobbying. They should also apply pressure on the private sector to do more. For corporations, working with cities to expand their own summer hiring is a low-cost way to earn community goodwill and train potential future employees. For cities, strengthening ties with the private sector with an eye toward teen employment can only bolster their own efforts.
There are very few silver bullets in policy, and a summer jobs program is certainly not one. But it has the virtue we seek in many interventions—it works. And moreover, it’s relatively affordable. Progressives like to talk about investing in the future, but they generally have in mind the student in the classroom or the toddler in child care when they do so. But the teenager toiling in an unglamorous, low-paying summer job—one that’s preparing her for bigger things in life—should be no less a part of that vision.