A summer jobs program for high school students from disadvantaged neighborhoods in Chicago reduced violent crime arrests by 43 percent over a 16-month period, according to a new study.
The study evaluated the impact of Chicago’s One Summer Plus program, which offers eight weeks of part-time summer employment at the Illinois minimum wage of $8.25 an hour and an adult job mentor to help the students.
“There are opposing pieces of conventional wisdom on whether a program like this would work,” said Sara Heller, who started the research while a doctoral fellow at the University of Chicago Crime Lab and is now with the University of Pennsylvania.
“On one hand is the popular idea that ‘nothing stops a bullet like a job.’ On the other is a body of research on employment programs suggesting that only intensive and lengthy interventions can improve outcomes among disadvantaged youth — that one summer could never be enough.”
For the study, researchers randomly assigned 1,634 students from 13 high-violence Chicago neighborhoods to one of three groups: Summer jobs, summer jobs plus a social-emotional learning component, or a control group that did not participate in the interventions. Slots were limited by the available funding.
The kids in the jobs-only group were offered 25 hours a week of paid employment. Kids in the job plus social-emotional learning group were paid for 15 hours of work and 10 hours of social-emotional learning based on cognitive behavioral therapy principles. The goal is to help the teens understand and manage thoughts, emotions, and behavior that might interfere with employment.
The remaining kids were not offered jobs through One Summer Plus, although they were free to pursue other jobs or summer activities provided by the city or local nonprofits.
Study participants were on average 16 years old and almost all were African-American. More than 90 percent were eligible for free or reduced price lunches, indicating the family lives at the poverty level, and the students had about a C average in school.
About 20 percent had been arrested and about 20 percent had been victims of a crime by the start of the study, the researchers reported. They lived in neighborhoods with unemployment rates of 19 percent and very high violent crime rates, the researchers added.
The kids were assigned a variety of jobs, including camp counselors, community garden workers, and office assistants for aldermen. They were also given job mentors — adults who helped them learn how to be successful employees and to navigate barriers to employment.
Both the jobs and the jobs plus social-emotional learning were equally effective in reducing violent crime arrests by about 43 percent compared to the control group, according to the study’s findings.
“The City of Chicago was courageous enough to put its One Summer Plus program to the test, and turns out that just eight weeks of summer programming decreases violent crime arrests — by a huge amount — for over a year after the job ends,” said Heller. “This is an incredibly encouraging finding.”
Heller noted that the decline occurred largely after the eight-week summer job program ended, indicating that the program did not just keep youth busier over the summer — it changed their behavior after the job had ended as well.
Previous youth employment programs have targeted young adults who have dropped out of school and are struggling to find jobs. But intervening before the students drop out of school and helping them develop skills needed to be successful on the job, like impulse control and decision-making, might do more by focusing on prevention rather than remediation, she noted.
The study was published in the journal Science.
Source: University of Chicago