J-PAL Voices: The Impact and Promise of Summer Jobs in the United States

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In this podcast from J-PAL North America, we bring you the stories behind the impact. Hear from advocates and program coordinators, researchers, and most importantly, the participants themselves about why summer jobs programs matter to them and why they should matter for all of us.

J-PAL Voices Episode 1: Setting the Stage

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Narrator
In 2011, economist Judd Kessler was living in New York City and looking for a research topic that would have a meaningful policy impact. So he called an acquaintance at the Mayor’s Fund To Advance New York City, an institution that works with city agencies and community-based partners.

Judd Kessler
The Mayor's Fund was an organization that gave money to city agencies or to city programs. And they were very interested in the efficacy of the dollars they were donating. And so she went through with me one day, and I remember the meeting vividly, a bunch of the things that they were supporting with their funds. And I would ask a few questions about the ones that sounded interesting, and we got to summer youth employment and she described the program, which I knew about growing up in New York. I had friends who had either applied or thought about applying. And she described the program and as she was describing it, it just kept sounding more and more like the kind of thing that would lend itself to an evaluation. It would be important. It would be helping to evaluate the efficacy of a big program. At the time it was serving almost 50,000 people each summer.

Narrator
A year earlier, and a few states away, as a graduate student, economist Sara Heller had a similar conversation with Commissioner Evelyn Diaz of Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services. 

Sara Heller
When I was a graduate student, I was learning a lot about the literature on job training programs in general as part of my graduate education. And I realized that we had all of this evidence on adult training programs and some about youth training programs, but basically nothing on summer jobs programs in particular, and these summer programs, which are targeted to younger people - that's why they're in the summer, sort of between the school year - have been going on for half a century. The federal government started funding them in the sixties and that money has sort of moved around in different ways, but they've been running in almost every major city for half a century and we really knew almost nothing about their effects.

Narrator
In partnership with researchers like Sara and Judd, visionary city leaders in Chicago, New York, and Boston would go on to study these summer jobs programs. Thanks to their efforts, we now know that these programs reduce violent crime, reduce incarceration, improve community engagement, and even save lives.

Narrator
From J-PAL North America, this is J-PAL Voices. I’m your host, Rohit Naimpally. On this season of J-PAL Voices, we take a close look at the impact and promise presented by summer jobs programs in the United States. We will bring you the stories behind the impact, as told by the people who create, participate in, and sustain these programs. Episode One: Setting the Stage.

Sara Heller
Typically, they tend to be more often, jobs in nonprofit and government organizations. So things like being a summer camp counselor at a YMCA, or doing some urban renewal projects clearing out a vacant lot and planting an urban garden and sort of learning a little bit about gardening and food production as you go, working on sort of maintaining schools over the summer or landscaping and the building infrastructure or working in an Alderman's office. Some of the programs also include private sector jobs. So what you might think of as a more, sort of quote “normal” summer job working in retail or restaurants in your sort of local drugstore or grocery store.

Narrator
That’s Sara Heller again, now an economics professor at the University of Michigan, describing what jobs are typically available through Chicago’s One Summer Chicago summer jobs program. While these programs do vary across cities, they bear a number of similarities to each other. This was made all the more clear when I spoke  with Julia Breitman. Julia is the Senior Director of Youth Employment Programs in New York City’s Department of Youth and Community Development

Julia Breitman
About 40% of the jobs are in your typical summer job, your daycare, day camp, hospital, social service. We also have another 40% of young people in the private sector. And that's everything from small businesses, to banks. And then we have young people who are also participating or working with government agencies. So really, it runs the gamut of everything in New York City. We also have a professional internship program called Ladders for Leaders. It's the capstone of your Summer Youth Employment Program. Selection to that program is very rigorous, but young people in that program are able to really intern with some of the top names in businesses in New York City. So we have young people work in the Bank of America, and Sotheby's, and The Mets. So those are very cool experiences. But those are for a smaller group of young people. But you could be a camp counselor one day, you could work in a sustainability project another summer. You could work in a small business, you could work in a hospital. 

Narrator
City agencies like the Department of Youth and Community Development partner with community-based organizations to help youth gain work experience, earn a steady paycheck over the summer, and develop the soft and hard skills that they will need going forward. As you would expect, these programs are incredibly popular and reliably receive many more applicants than they can typically serve. Many city agencies are working tirelessly to expand their offerings so that this is no longer the case. But as long as these programs are oversubscribed, they present us with a unique research opportunity. 

Sara Heller
Part of what lent itself to, or part of what made the program open to evaluation is that I had leadership who was really, really dedicated to figuring out if it worked. Now, what people often do when they're interested in thinking about whether a program works is collect information on participants, on people who actually show up and participate in the program. And to think about whether those youth have different outcomes from the youth who aren't participating you have to find some other group of non-participants to compare them to. But if you think about it, if you just compare the participants to the non-participants, the difference between those groups is not just the program, because you might think that the people who show up and say, “I'm ready for a job here I am.” are different even in the absence of the program. And it might be that they're more motivated or they have parents or grandparents who are more active about helping them seek out opportunities. So it might be that they're already doing better, even in the absence of the program. But it could also be the opposite. It could be the youth who really struggled to find a job or living in areas where there just aren't as many jobs and so they would be doing worse than the absence of the program. So there's this sort of classic problem of being able to isolate the effect of the program itself. And the reason we were able to overcome that [a little bit of audio needs to be cut here: and this is true, not just for Plus, but for other studies that I know you're going to be discussing on the podcast] is that basically all of these programs are oversubscribed. So they have more applications than they actually have money to serve or programs slots, which means they have to allocate those slots somehow. And the way that they do it in order to be fair, so to avoid nepotism or first come first serve, they allocate the slots with a lottery, which means the difference between people who are actually offered the job and the applicants who applied but were not offered the job is really just the flip of a coin, so that we know in the absence of the program, those two groups, the participants and the non-participants, on average, are going to look just the same. That means we can follow the youth over time, both the participants and the non-participants, compare their outcomes, and really be able to isolate the effect of the program itself by comparing the average difference between those two groups.

Narrator
At J-PAL North America, a regional office of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, where I work, we try to answer critical policy questions in the fight against poverty. We use rigorous research to identify which programs can foster upward mobility, and evaluations like the one that the City of Chicago conducted in partnership with Sara Heller are catnip to us: they provide us with rigorous evidence of measurable impact. Over the course of this series, we will go deep on what we have learned from evaluations in Chicago, New York, and Boston. But that’s not all. Through conversations with participants, program implementers, and other stakeholders, we will try to give you a holistic sense of what summer jobs represent to their communities. As Julia Breitman told me, New York City’s Department of Youth and Community Development tries to be responsive to what the participants in their programs actually want and need.

Julia Breitman
We really look at the interests of young people, and we ask our community-based organizations to develop jobs based on their interests. And we're trying to break into IT and to the tech sector. I think this summer, we've been really successful because it was virtual. I think it actually helped us make a lot of connections in the technology sector. But we're looking at the jobs of the future, we're looking at where industries are heading, and we're hoping that it starts to match what the summer experiences are looking like for our young people.

Narrator
In speaking with participants and program coordinators, I am constantly reminded of just how much these summer jobs programs do for their participants. This past summer, in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, these programs played a crucial supportive role, as Angela Rudolph in Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services explains.

Angela Rudolph  
We had young people who were depending upon us. So we had a number of conversations with the agencies that we fund, we call them delegates. And one of the things that we learned from delegate agencies was that young people were really challenged by what they had lost. They had lost the ability to kind of have business as usual. They lost the ability to interact with the people that they cared about. And it wasn't just their friends. It was around teachers or coaches or folks in programs who really helped to ground young, some young people who had challenging circumstances. And so for us, we wanted to figure out ways that we could really build a program that would center all of those things and help people felt like they were gaining something when we got to the summertime.

Narrator
These programs provide the supports that participants need and foster a sense of purpose and community that goes beyond employment. Viewed in this light, the impact of summer jobs on violent crime is an important part of the story, but not the entirety of it. 

Angela Rudolph
Yes, having a job, it's helpful and it does have an impact on violence, but it's not just the job, right? [A little bit of audio needs to be cut here: It is all of those things that we learned many years before, around youth development in general, that] The way that you help young people isn't just by giving them a wage. You help young people by making sure that they understand that there are people out here who care about them and who are invested in their success. And who are going to be there for them if they run into difficulty and if they are trying to figure things out.

Narrator
This is echoed in much of what I heard from participants in these programs, many of whom saw their supervisors and employers as proof of the community’s investment in their futures. Participants like Erica Chen, who spent a number of summers working with Commonpoint Queens as part of New York City’s Ladders for Leaders Program. 

Erica Chen
I really loved my instructor because - or like my boss - because she was so friendly with everything and casual with everything, but she was also really approachable about like job things, job related things, but also like life things. Like if you were to ask her about advice, obviously like out of work times though, but she was like such a mom to the entire group of Ladders for Leaders kids.

Narrator
Habiba Khan, another Commonpoint alumnus, told me that experiences like hers set people up for a promising future well beyond the end of the program.

Habiba Khan
If you're investing time in the students and if you're investing time in the participants of the program, then you're more likely to get something out of the students. You know, the more you invest in something, the more you're likely to get something out of it. So it does make sense that when you introduce someone to something that's good for them, that they might continue going along that pathway and continue using whatever you're giving them to their advantage.

Narrator
All the participants I spoke with reflected Habiba’s belief that the youth who apply to these programs are well positioned to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them. That they have desire and agency. And in summer jobs programs, there is leadership that is willing to provide the belief and supportive environment that those youth need. This was perhaps Angela Rudolph’s biggest takeaway for me from the program in Chicago.

Angela Rudolph
I think far too often, we have this sense as older people that young people are lazy, young people aren't really interested in doing that much. Everybody wants to stay, you know, linked, physically to their devices. And one of the biggest lessons that I walked away from this summer with was the deep and unabiding desire that young people have to feel like they have agency and the ability to make things better. And that one of the kind of added bonuses of this summer was that young people felt like there were people in the world who saw that and wanted to create spaces for them to do something more and different and beyond what they could have ever imagined. And I know that's true because I have literally seen every one of the comments that young people submitted from our survey. And one of the kind of overwhelming themes was this kind of wonder that people had. That they saw things in themselves that they didn’t really recognize beforehand and that they had struggled with, particularly because of what happened with the COVID crisis. And so I just want people to know that, you know, young people are waiting for them to see them, to invest in them, and to really kind of offer themselves as a guide, to kind of figure out what is the way forward.

Narrator
In embarking on this journey to tell the story of summer jobs programs in the United States, our goal is to explore how these programs can be one part of the solution towards fostering upward mobility. The scope of what these programs provide their participants is reflected in a broader understanding of what upward mobility means. In speaking with the various people involved with summer jobs, I kept coming back to the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty’s conception of upward mobility. The Partnership consists of leading voices in academia, practice, the faith community, philanthropy, and the private sector. The Partnership’s collective ambition is that all people achieve a reasonable standard of living with the dignity that comes from having power over their lives and being engaged in and valued by their community. J-PAL North America Scientific Director Larry Katz is a professor of economics at Harvard University, and serves as one of the Partnership members. I asked him about how he thinks about mobility from poverty.

Larry Katz
An important component is your standard of living and your income. But I think what we really were concerned with was everyone having the opportunity for a meaningful role in society, to have dignity, and to be valued by their community. And not just to only have a high income and that opportunity. And I think we thought a lot, not just about what the impacts of programs were on earnings, but your own autonomy to make choices. The sense of which, what you do will be valued by others in a sense of inclusiveness, belonging, and truly developing meaning. And that's where we thought about as mobility from poverty, as broader than just what fraction of people earn or have family incomes above some cut off. Clearly material hardship is incredibly important and we want everyone to escape and to have a decent standard of living, but we thought much more broadly about really, the fact that everyone deserves the opportunity to do something meaningful and to have dignity and be respected and as a valued member of the community. And that's the most important thing that's almost impossible to do when in material, when really strapped for resources. So that's key, but empowerment is another important aspect of it.

Narrator
As part of its approach, the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty proposes a set of five interlocking strategies to dramatically increase mobility from poverty: One, change the prominent and damaging narratives about poverty and mobility. Two, create access to good jobs by improving pathways to good jobs and transforming jobs with low wages. Three, ensure that zip code is not destiny through comprehensive place-based approaches. Four, provide support that empowers that takes “whole person” and “whole family” approaches. And finally, transform data use to help researchers and policymakers better understand which programs are most effective and why.
Over the next five episodes of J-PAL Voices, we will explore how each of these five strategies plays out with summer jobs programs, and get to know some of the stories underpinning them all.

Narrator
J-PAL voices is produced by Dave Lishansky and written and narrated by Rohit Naimpally. Elizabeth Bond designed our logo. Special thanks to Yijin Yang for her inputs and support. Transcription assistance was provided by Caroline Garau and Yiping Li. For this week’s interviews, we thank Judd Kessler, Sara Heller, Julia Breitman, Angela Rudolph, Erica Chen, Habiba Khan, and Larry Katz. Our email address is [email protected]; we would love to receive your comments and feedback.

Narrator
On the next episode of J-PAL Voices...

Julia Breitman
My goal is to sort of make it a universal program where you want to do business in New York City, you have to hire New York City youth. And I think it would be a tremendous boon for all industries, not just for the young people, but for the industries themselves because it will really make them understand New York much more, the communities that they're working with much more, and really make them feel like New York City companies.

Rigorous research paired with visionary public policy has shaped a program that empowers communities to lower violent crime, reduce incarceration, and save lives: Summer Youth Employment Programs. In this podcast series from J-PAL North America, you’ll come to know the stories behind the impact.

Hosted by Senior Research and Policy Manager Rohit Naimpally, the inaugural season of J-PAL Voices will explore how summer jobs programs fit into the broader goals of fostering mobility from poverty in the United States. Over six episodes, we will hear from advocates and program coordinators, researchers, and most importantly, the participants themselves about why these programs matter to them and why they should matter for all of us. We hope you’ll join the conversation and tune into J-PAL Voices. Starting October 14th, episodes will be released every second Wednesday. Subscribe to J-PAL Voices today, wherever you listen to podcasts.

EPISODE 1: SETTING THE STAGE

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Sound engineer and producer: Dave Lishansky

The Impact of Summer Youth Employment Programs

Summer youth employment programs commonly place qualifying youth, often from low-income families, in a part-time, minimum-wage job with a local government agency, community organization, or business for the summer. Youth may also receive mentorship, life skills training, or other services. Cities, with the help of state and federal grants and local philanthropic support, subsidize the wages of the participants. Each of the fifty most populous cities in the United States has recently offered a summer youth employment program. In a number of cities, including Boston, Chicago, and New York City, these programs have been shown to reduce arrests for violent crime, reduce incarceration rates, and even lead to a decrease in premature deaths. As we release episodes of the podcast, we will link to research studies and media stories highlighting the substantial impact of these programs.

J-PAL Voices: Trailer

Listen to the trailer for J-PAL Voices: The Impact and Promise of Summer Jobs in the United States for a preview of what’s to come.