By Joan Gralla

(Reuters) - Job-hunting teenagers in cities across the United States face the third bleak summer in a row. They must compete for scarce slots in scaled-back government work programs and against adults forced into low-paying positions by the unemployment crisis.

The harsh summer job market for teens is compounded by this: The country has recovered only half the jobs lost from December 2007 through June 2009, the worst recession in 70 years.

Teens - often the last hired and first fired - suffered the toughest summers on the job front since World War II in 2010 and 2011. This summer, the outlook is chilly - again.

In April, the U.S. unemployment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds was 24.9 percent - and much higher in some major metropolitan areas.

"What I would ask people to think about is: Who gave you your first work experience? Almost every one of us had a break to get their first job, and that work experience is essential to get your second and third job," said Larry Frank, Los Angeles deputy mayor of neighborhood and community services.

Los Angeles - with the help of federal stimulus money - created around 15,000 summer jobs for teenagers in 2009 and 2010. But as the federal program ended, that was slashed to about 6,000 in 2011. It will not rise this year.

It's a similar story in other major cities.

New York City had 52,000 summer jobs for teens in 2009. Now the program is half that size. It has five applicants for every job.

Boston hopes to get funds and private-sector placements to raise this summer's teen job program to 10,000 slots, up from 8,800 in 2011, said Conny Doty, director of the Mayor's Office of Jobs and Community Services.

The Obama administration's stimulus funding helped support more than 370,000 summer youth jobs in 2009 and 2010.

But last autumn, a divided Congress failed to enact another jobs measure, which included $1.5 billion for summer and year-round jobs for low-income teenagers and young adults.

Federal officials are trying to persuade the private sector to fill some of the void to take the edge off the soaring national unemployment rate for teenagers.

LONG LINES AND A JOB LOTTERY

Brandon Hutchinson, 17, in line with about 200 other teens waiting to register for New York City's summer job program, said he has made it through the job lottery two out of the three times he applied. He recalled 2010, when he was not chosen, as "a dead summer," adding that although he had his friends, "I'd rather be getting paid."

Hutchinson hopes for a repeat of last summer when he worked in the kitchen of Henry Street Settlement, a nonprofit agency that offers social services, arts and healthcare programs.

In the lottery, though, not all who are called are chosen. To land a summer job, each teen must bring certain documents showing proof of identity and family income.

Darian Beauchamp, 16, in line with the other lottery winners, said he could not land a job this spring because employers wanted people who were at least 18: "My age and not having a lot of experience limited what I can do."

Nikya Floyd, a 32-year-old mother in line with her teen daughter, another lottery winner, got her first jobs through the same kind of program.

"Getting a paycheck every two weeks was a big motivator for me," said Floyd, who joined the Navy and became a machinist. Her summer jobs - mainly caring for children - did not lead to a career, but they "got me working and my mind set for a job."

KEEPING TEENS OUT OF TROUBLE

Some economists say the lack of job opportunities could push some urban teens to permanently disconnect from the workforce.

"If you're a lower-income person, the income might be pretty valuable. If it does keep you out of trouble, that's valuable because once young people are incarcerated, they are scarred for life," said Harry Holzer, a professor at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute.

Without federal stimulus dollars, other major U.S. cities also cut their summer job programs in the last two years. Philadelphia plans to place at least 5,600 youths this summer versus 11,180 in 2010.

But Chicago is increasing its summer jobs program to 17,000 spots, up 3,000 from 2011. Some 500 teenagers who live in high-crime areas will take part in special mentoring programs. The University of Chicago Crime Lab will study whether the program cuts "violence involvement" and improves "school outcomes."

The poorest Americans bear the brunt of the teen job crisis. Only one of every five teenagers whose family had income below $20,000 a year was hired last summer, a report by Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies found.

In contrast, the teen employment rate was 41 percent for those with family incomes of $100,000 to $150,000 a year.

WORST AND BEST CITIES FOR TEENS

Washington, D.C.'s teenage unemployment rate was 51.7 percent, an analysis by research fellow Michael Saltsman of the Employment Policies Institute showed.

Gerren Price, Washington's associate director of youth programs, tied its teenage unemployment crisis to local high schools' high drop-out rate and competition from area college students.

Nearly 38 out of every 100 young college graduates with bachelor of arts degrees are working as cashiers, sales clerks, bartenders, waiters, waitresses and in office jobs, Northeastern University's report found.

Unlike Washington, the Boston-Cambridge-Quincy metropolitan area has a fairly low teen unemployment rate - 14.8 percent - and one of the nation's strongest summer job programs.

"You can walk through any of those hospitals and meet people in their 30s who say they got there because they had a summer job there," Doty said.

(Reporting by Joan Gralla; Editing by Jan Paschal)