What a summer job can do for Baltimore's youth

Want to lower violent crime? Give Baltimore's kids summer jobs.

Last year at this time, Baltimore's politicians, philanthropists, non-profits, corporations and other institutional leaders were searching for a response to the unrest that followed Freddie Gray's death, some sort of tangible sign to show that they had heard and heeded the outcry about the injustice and poverty of opportunity felt by far too many of the city's residents. The search for systemic answers to systemic problems would be a long one, but when it came to a response that would have immediate symbolic and practical impact, they quickly settled on an idea: provide summer jobs for every city youth who wanted one.

For years, Baltimore has operated the YouthWorks program, which typically provided opportunities for about 5,000 youth aged 14-21 to gain work experience in government agencies, non-profits and private for-profit businesses. Last year, 8,000 kids had completed the application process, and so starting in May of 2015, the city engaged in an eight-week scramble to find funding and job sites for all of them. Thanks to help from the private sector, the governor's office and particularly the Annie E. Casey Foundation, they succeeded.

It's May again, and the city is scrambling again. It's farther along than it was at this point last year, but this time 9,400 youths have completed the application process and are eligible for work. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has set a goal of providing opportunities for as many people as in 2015, but we would argue that the goal should once again be to serve all comers. The potential impact is simply too great to ignore.

Baltimore conducts post-employment surveys of both the participants and the employers, which show a high degree of satisfaction with the program. But other cities with similar initiatives have been subject to much more extensive, rigorous and independent evaluations, and the evidence suggests they can be literally life saving.

Research from the University of Chicago's Crime Lab and the University of Pennsylvania found a statistically significant drop in arrests for violent crime for those who got jobs through Chicago's One Summer Plus Program. Youth who applied — predominantly African-American kids from poor families, many of whom had previously been arrested for or victimized by violent crime — were assigned randomly to three groups. One got an eight-week summer job, the second got a job plus social-emotional learning "aimed at teaching youth to understand and manage the aspects of their thoughts, emotions, and behavior that might interfere with employment," and the third got no job at all.

The two groups who got jobs were significantly less likely to be arrested for violent crime after their experience — a difference of about 4 arrests per 100 youth — and the difference persisted long after the summer ended. Interestingly, the program had no impact on other kinds of crime, nor did it matter whether the participant had a job or a job plus social-emotional learning. The study's author, Sara B. Heller wrote in Science that "The process of working itself might ... be enough to improve self-control, develop self-efficacy, and reduce frustration (all potential determinants of how youth perceive and respond to conflict)."

New York City's program has routinely accepted applicants on a lottery basis, making it fertile ground for similar studies. In 2014, the National Bureau of Economic Research published a paper on that city's summer jobs initiative that found decreases in mortality and incarceration for those who participated. Studies of academic outcomes related to summer work have been mixed, but Stanford researcher Jacob Leos-Urbel reported that participants in New York's program were more likely to take and pass that state's Regents Exams and to have better attendance. The impact was substantially greater for youth who participated over multiple years.

To be sure, Baltimore's program should be subject to similar analysis to determine how its specific structure in terms of duration, selection criteria and ancillary supports like mentorship stack up with other cities and how they affect outcomes for the participants. (Perhaps Johns Hopkins University, one of the largest institutional supporters and employers for YouthWorks, could make that happen.) But the evidence is clear enough that this isn't just some feel-good thing. It needs to be supported and expanded.

In the immediate term, that means the private sector needs to step up. The Casey Foundation, which points to research showing the long-term benefits of providing students with soft skills and expanded social networks, has again taken the lead. It has offered a total of as much as $1.25 million in direct funding and matching grants, but the program is still more than $4 million short of what it would need for 8,000 jobs and more than $6 million short of the total to fund 9,400. Meanwhile, the city still needs employers to offer job opportunities. It's about 1,500 short of the 8,000 goal.

Longer term, though, Baltimore needs to find a stable, predictable funding mechanism for the program. That could involve a larger commitment in the city budget — through various direct and indirect mechanisms, the city will contribute about $2.6 million this year — an expenditure that would be well justified for its potential impact on crime rates alone. (Baltimore provides a much smaller share of funding for its program than Washington, D.C., New York or Los Angeles do for theirs.) It could involve a new commitment from the state — which will provide about $2.5 million this year, directly or in conjunction with the city's Department of Social Services — perhaps under the auspices of the Justice Reinvestment initiative. It could involve fund-raising for an endowment or a combination of the three.

But whatever the answer, mayor-in-waiting Catherine Pugh should take note: There will be another summer next year. Let's demonstrate to the city's youth that providing opportunities for them is something for which we are willing to make a long-term commitment, not an annual last-minute scramble.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad