As COVID-19 vaccination roll out continues and the U.S. economy recovers, teens are hoping to land the summer jobs they likely missed out on last year. However, not all teenagers are experiencing the benefits of current labor-market improvements equally. This trend is cause for concern, given the crucial role early employment experiences play in job skill attainment and future financial stability. Municipal summer jobs programs offer an evidence-based, cost-effective solution to this problem. To ensure an equitable economic recovery, these programs should be prioritized for COVID-relief funding through the American Rescue Plan.
The June jobs report demonstrated a decline in unemployment among young people, and some outlets are suggesting that teens will be able to obtain summer employment easily this year. However, COVID-19 has exacerbated racial disparities in access to quality employment among young people. Even prior to the pandemic, white teens were more likely than their peers of color to be employed in the summer months. Now, the current unemployment rates among Black (13.6 percent), Hispanic (11.9 percent) and Asian (13.8 percent) youth are substantially higher than that of their white peers (9.9 percent). This disparity matters because summer jobs are essential for young people to gain employment experience and build both soft and hard skills for future success in the workforce.
Many U.S. cities host structured summer jobs programs to connect teens to employment opportunities they might not have access to on their own. These popular programs place young people, ages 14 to 24, in part-time summer jobs at community-based or private sector employers. Applicants are often from low-income communities and many participants are youth of color, particularly Black and Hispanic.
Randomized evaluations have shown that summer jobs programs benefit both participating young people and their communities. For participants, programs provide exposure to careers that raise academic aspirations while developing better work habits — all of which have been linked to better attendance and test scores during the school year that ultimately led to a 6 percent increase in on-time high school graduation in Boston. By providing young people with a set of socially productive activities, summer jobs programs also improved community engagement and soft skills such as managing emotions and resolving conflict with peers that led to a 30-40 percent reduction in violent crime and property crime during the 16 to 18 months after participation in the program. Research from Chicago also found that nearly 80 percent of earnings go toward supporting their families or stimulating the local economy.
Last year, municipalities had to make hard decisions about how to move forward with their summer jobs programs amid health concerns and limited funds. Some cities reduced or shut down their programs altogether. This year, we can draw from examples of how summer jobs programs have adapted and even strengthened their model when resources — including emergency funding — are properly utilized.
In 2020, then-Mayor Mary Walsh utilized $4.1 million of CARES Act funding to expand Boston’s summer jobs program to ensure that the program continued serving the same number of young residents. Boston developed four program tracks that allowed young people to safely engage in meaningful activities including a “Learn and Earn” option, where youth took community college courses for credit and a virtual internship option, where participants engaged in remote team-based projects.
Survey data showed that participants were more likely to be employed than young people who were not randomly selected for the program. Virtual participants were also as likely as those in traditional, in-person placements to report developing work habits and soft skills such as asking for directions when things are unclear and working in teams. Based on these indicators, Boston is offering both virtual tracks this summer, recognizing their potential in increasing equitable access to jobs and post-secondary opportunities.
As the economy rebuilds, it is imperative that we do not merely return to the unequal employment statistics of pre-pandemic America. To truly “build back better,” policymakers should prioritize an equitable economic recovery by ensuring that good summer jobs are accessible to young people of color and young people from low-income families. To do this, localities should invest in summer jobs programs by drawing on American Rescue Plan funds to support COVID-19 recovery. There is $350 billion available for flexible spending and $22 billion for local education agencies coming to states and localities this summer. Allocating even a small portion of these funds toward summer jobs programs is a smart investment in our young people, our economy, and our recovery.
Alicia Sasser Modestino, Ph.D., is an associate professor of public policy and urban affairs and economics at Northeastern University.