More jobs, less crime

August 8, 2017
Young man works on a bike

Photo: Shutterstock.com

Thousands of disadvantaged young people across the United States are working at camps, daycare centers, and corporate and government offices this summer through summer employment programs. A growing body of evidence, including a number of evaluations by several J-PAL affiliates, shows that these programs can lower violent crime rates among youth. This research has supported a program’s expansion in Chicago and spurred additional evaluations of new questions and in new contexts.

J-PAL affiliate Judd Kessler (University of Pennsylvania), along with Alexander Gelber, and Adam Isen, evaluated New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), which at the time served 34,000 youth per year, making it the largest summer jobs program in the United States, from 2005 to 2008. SYEP led to a 10 percent drop in incarceration and an 18 percent drop in mortality—translating to 112 fewer jail sentences and 83 fewer deaths among the 14- to 21-year-old participants, relative to a comparison group that did not participate. A decline in fatal homicides likely drove the reduction in deaths.

Several years later, J-PAL affiliated professor Sara Heller (University of Pennsylvania) evaluated a similar program in another US city that targeted students with relatively low academic performance and high school absence rates. She found that Chicago’s summer jobs program—One Summer Chicago Plus (OSC+)—led to a 43 percent drop in violent crime arrests over 16 months, or about four fewer arrests per 100 youth. The impact persisted, with the decline occurring largely after the end of the eight-week program. A subsequent evaluation involving higher-risk young men showed similar results. Adolescents in that study were recruited from Chicago’s juvenile justice system, Jonathan M.V. Davis and Sara found that the program reduced violent crime arrests by 33 percent, equivalent to eight fewer arrests per 100 participants. The researchers also used machine learning to study how the impact of the program varied among individuals; the program improved employment outcomes among individuals who were on average younger and more engaged in school.

The results fostered public and philanthropic support to scale up OSC+, an example of how rigorous evidence can inform decision-making. "Just by doing a high-quality study, that also happened to have good results, we were able to make this program available to four times as many young people,” said Evelyn Diaz, who headed Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services at the time. “That never happens in social services." As OSC+ expands, J-PAL affiliated professor Marianne Bertrand (University of Chicago) and Heller are testing the impact of receiving a mentor along with a job, and how outcomes vary across different service providers.

This summer, the City of Philadelphia partnered with Heller to evaluate the WorkReady summer jobs program and to assess whether the program would be effective in another setting. In addition to crime, employment, and school effects, the study will track socially costly behaviors and conditions related to violence, including mental health, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, housing instability, and child maltreatment. This collaboration received support from J-PAL North America’s State and Local Innovation Initiative, through which J-PAL provides funding, technical support, and matchmaking with researchers to help policymakers answer their priority policy questions about which social policies work, which work best, and why.

Together, this body of research and ongoing studies demonstrate the power of rigorous evidence to find out what can move the needle on violent crime for some of the most disadvantaged young people in the United States.

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