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The White House Council on Economic Advisers issued a report Sep. 11 claiming that the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, better known as the stimulus bill, has created up to 1.1 million jobs. But all stimulus jobs are not created equal – 227,000 are summer-only employment for poor or otherwise disadvantaged people, ages 14-24. These jobs were for 20-30 hours a week, paid the minimum wage, and ended after 6-10 weeks. Summer is over – and so are these 227,000 jobs.

About $1.2 billion of the stimulus bill went toward bringing back the summer-only employment program, a part of the Workforce Investment Act youth program that runs out of the Labor Department. The mission of summer employment programs for disadvantaged youth is both vague and tantalizing – they’re supposed to spur consumer spending, provide for poor families, teach job skills, and open a world of possibilities for often ghettoized young people. The experience here in Chicago and across the country is that summer youth jobs begin to accomplish some of these goals. But summer jobs do not give disadvantaged young people what they really need – a year-round program to put them on track toward permanent employment.

Summer Stimulus

Summer youth jobs are the quintessential social program – conditionally funded by Democrats and reflexively opposed by Republicans. Federal money provided up to 1.1 million summer youth jobs in the Jimmy Carter administration. Funding then dried up in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, but was temporarily revived in the Bill Clinton administration. Clinton signed, in 1998, the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), which included a summer employment program for vulnerable teenagers and young adults. In the George W. Bush Labor Department, though, summer youth jobs were cut entirely. An economic crisis plus a Democratic president and Congress have brought back summer jobs, albeit in the form of one-shot stimulus spending. “After ten years of not receiving federal dollars, it was a very exciting time for us,” says Carmen Alicea-Reyes, deputy commissioner for Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services, which runs the Chicago youth jobs program. The stimulus bill has also temporarily brought back other social programs eviscerated in the Bush administration – Justice Department grants to bring back the COPS community police program and increases in Education Department Pell Grants to help poor people afford college.

Summer jobs returned in the midst of a recession and the biggest recorded crisis ever in teen employment. In 2000 – the last year of federal funding for summer jobs – the employment rate among teens was 45 percent, according to a report released this August by Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. The Center for Labor Market Studies projected that the summer teen employment rate this year would be 31 percent – the worst since the Labor Department started keeping track after World War II. Twenty-six percent of all teenagers looking for work this past summer could not find it — also a record. Even 2009′s increase in summer jobs couldn’t significantly reduce teen unemployment – the U.S. would need 27 million more teen jobs to return to 2000 levels. But according to officials at the Labor Department’s Employment and Training Administration, by the end of July, the stimulus had created a grand total of 226,876 summer jobs.

The Labor Department had strict rules as to who was to get these jobs. A city of Chicago request for proposals in March to prospective employers read:

A special emphasis will be placed on recruiting and employing out of school youth and those youth with barriers to employment, such as: lacking basic literacy skills, out of school, pregnant/parenting teens, gang affiliated, living in Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) households, non-custodial fathers of children in low-income households, in foster care, with disabilities, involved with the juvenile justice system (those on probation or parole); with limited English-speaking ability or those who identify as being gay, lesbian, or bi-sexual, transgender or questioning.

The rest of the stipulations were an age range of 14-24 years old, and jobs that would run 6-10 weeks. New workers were also supposed to learn work readiness skills, though state and local governments were free to interpret what work readiness meant. 7,300 Chicago-area youths participated in the summer jobs program, working between 20-30 hours a week, according to the city of Chicago stimulus website. “It was a range of work experience opportunities,” Alicea-Reyes of Chicago’s family services explains. “Some young people worked in the hotel industry, some in museums, and others in gardening programs.” Organizing this summer program took time, and Alicea-Reyes wished the city had had hired temporary stuff to help run the program and supervise the young workers. Otherwise, though, the city has called summer youth jobs a success. “Many of these employees’ parents had lost their jobs and these jobs helped feed their families,” she said. “The kids expressed gratitude and were pleased to help their parents pay the bills.” Patricia Prado, project coordinator of family support services, notes another accomplishment. “Many of these youths were gang affiliated,” she said, “And for a little while this took them out of harm’s way – out of their everyday environment.”

People who supervised the youth workers agree the program had several benefits. “We allowed the kids to experiment with entrepreneurship, like showing how to run a silk screen t-shirt printing business,” says Mike Bancroft, executive director of Co-op Image, a non-profit youth arts center in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. “We provided them mentorship with their interest in art. And they developed professional skills like improved communication and punctuality.” Like Bancroft, Mike Thomas of Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance cited the benefits of previous work with teens. “Other sites might have just been recruiting kids that they didn’t have a previous relationship with, but we have a year-round job readiness program,” he says. “Kids were able to do productive work — from landscaping to peer-to-peer mentoring on AIDS and HIV awareness.”

Most people agreed that these jobs stimulated the economy – though mostly through typical teen consumerism. “I spent my money in a lightning flash,” says Eric Amaya, a16 year-old employed by Chicago Public Schools to mentor incoming high school kids. “I bought a Wii and then I bought a million games because I’m a Mario fan.” Kerry Hagy, who supervised young workers in community gardens for the non-profit Open Lands, said her employees had little trouble doing something stimulating. “Teen jobs are a great stimulus to the economy,” she says. “They go and blow their paychecks immediately – usually on phones that they won’t be able to pay the bill for.”

Post-Summer Blues

But despite the claims of the Obama administration and the city of Chicago, summer jobs are not real jobs. According to Andy Sum, professor at Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market studies, early data shows that the average job lasted seven weeks (states do not report summer job outcomes until October, according to the Labor Department). This means jobs lasted a whopping 14 percent of the year. Also, the jobs were slated for 20-30 hours only, and it appears this amounted to 20 hours in Chicago. “All the 14-18 year-olds worked 20 hours a week,” Hagy says. “The 18-24 year-olds were supposed to work 24 hours, but they usually worked 20.” And all the jobs nationally were minimum wage, which in Illinois meant $8.00 an hour. The federal minimum wage is $7.25. So these teen jobs were dramatically worse in pay and duration than a random sample of 227,000 jobs lost in the recession. And the program does nothing to alter teen workforce trends – the Center for Labor Market studies projects that the teen employment rate will hit an all-time low this fall.

The inflated job creation numbers are especially pronounced in Chicago. The City of Chicago claims the stimulus has created 9,137 jobs in the city – but 7,300 of these were summer youth jobs. Not all these jobs are gone — Alicea-Reyes points out that Chicago has a year-round program for disadvantaged youth. “Some of these people remain in the employment program,” she says. “Annually the program attracts between 2,000 and 2,400 people.” But this is a pre-existing program with no support from Washington. Alicea-Reyes also points out that some young people keep their jobs even after their position is no longer federally subsidized. But this number is small. Thomas of Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance estimates that only about 40 of the 800 students his organization and other local community groups were involved with kept their jobs.

So what happens to these young people, who were specifically recruited for jobs because they possessed glaring barriers to employment like gang affiliation or illiteracy? Perhaps half are still in high school or college, but many of them “continue to look for work in the school year,” asserts Sum of Northeastern. Proponents of summer youth jobs claim the experience can put youth on a virtuous path. “More than the six-week experience, it is important that we help them develop job readiness skills like writing a resume and sending out thank you letters,” says Larry Alexander, program director for Jobs for Youth Chicago, which worked with 100 youths in the summer jobs program. “The purpose here is to expose young people to career paths and to provide them alternatives to being involved in negative experiences.”

But six or seven weeks is not enough time to integrate disadvantaged youths into the mainstream economy. “You’re dealing with kids who have never worked before and you’re dealing with staff who have never employed young kids,” says Sum of Northeastern. “We need to stick with these kids and work with them and make sure they get full-time jobs.” Bancroft, of co-op arts, agrees. “I think the model is inherently flawed,” he says. “We put the teens in a silk screen printing business. But it’s not a real screen printing business – there’s no social ownership here. A better alternative would be an early apprenticeship model that’s more sustained.” Such a model would require more than just stimulus money – it would take a long-term taxpayer commitment to developing real work skills and job training, including subsidies to employers.

A Summer Fling

Those involved in summer jobs were eager to implement improvements. “We’ve identified ways to make the program more efficient,” says Thomas of Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance. “Teen programs are awesome and valuable,” says Hagy of Open Lands. “But it is hard to make good on them.” Unfortunately, there is currently no money available for summer jobs to continue year-round – or even next summer. “Almost all the stimulus bill was spent this summer,” says Alicea-Reyes.

The evidence from Chicago is that the government has the competence and imagination to make a social program work for both disadvantaged youth and the overall economy. But it will be a cruel tease for these young if the Obama administration Labor Department and Congress do not push for employment assistance beyond the stimulus. “We were very happy with the investment,” says Mala B. Thakur, executive director of the National Youth Employment Coalition, which focuses on poor youth. “But it’s really just a small investment. Our hope is that it can be a building block for the future.”

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