By Mary Ellen Sprenkel, President and CEO of The Corps Network
Yesterday I was excited, but not entirely surprised, to read about a new study published in the journal Science about how a cohort of Chicago teenagers were affected by access to summer employment. The conclusion of the study, conducted by University of Pennsylvania criminologist Sara Heller, is that when you give a young person a summer job, he or she is significantly less likely to commit a violent crime. More on that in a moment.
These days, you no longer hear people talking about "disadvantaged youth" or "at-risk youth." Today we talk about "opportunity youth": low-income young people who are out of school and out of work, but who seek opportunities to advance their education or career and can offer a great deal to our country if we invest in them and provide access to resources like job training or college prep.
Those of us who work with opportunity youth know firsthand how valuable these young people are. Many of them have experienced extreme poverty, violence, incarceration, addiction and abuse, but they are eager to learn and fiercely determined to not be held back by their circumstances.
Throughout the country, there are many different kinds of youth development programs that offer everything from counseling and help accessing public assistance, to career training and college-level classes. For example, America's 100+ Service and Conservation Corps engage young people, many of whom fit the definition of opportunity youth, in service projects through which they can gain hands-on work experience and learn valuable soft skills, like how to work in a team or peacefully resolve conflicts. Many Corps also provide mentors and counselors, and some programs offer educational opportunities through partnerships with local high schools, trade schools, and colleges.
As President and CEO of The Corps Network, the national membership association of Corps, I can tell you countless stories about young men and women who overcame the limitations of their upbringing or poor past decisions by embracing the opportunities offered by a Corps or similar youth development program. On that note, let's get back to that study.
In the summer of 2012, a randomly selected group of 1,634 students from high-crime schools in Chicago participated in the study. Over 90 percent of the students came from low-income families and received free or reduced-price lunch, and one-fifth of them had previously been arrested. 350 of the students were randomly assigned 25-hour per week minimum wage jobs, while another 350 students were randomly assigned 15-hour per week minimum wage jobs plus 10 hours of weekly classes that taught them how to understand their emotions and manage behaviors that could interfere with employment. The remaining students carried on as normal.
Heller looked at arrest data throughout the summer and during the 13 months following the conclusion of the 8-week-long jobs. What she found was that, compared to the control group, violent crime decreased 43 percent among the two groups of students who received jobs. There were 5.1 arrests per 100 youth who were part of the treatment group and 9.1 arrests per 100 youth who were in the control group. Most significantly, the largest decreases in crime came months after the jobs ended, suggesting that crime reduction during the summer wasn't simply a result of students being too busy at work to break the law; the soft skills, experience with conflict resolution, and responsibility gained on the job seems to have made a lasting impression.
It is also notable that the students who worked longer hours did not differ significantly from the students who also attended social-emotional classes; this suggests that it wasn't just the classes that caused a behavioral change. Participating in the workforce and having a structured way to contribute to the community is what made the difference. Corps offer this opportunity.
Why, in the months after the summer ended, were the students who didn't have jobs more likely to be involved in criminal activity? Other than that they weren't offered employment, they really weren't any different from the students who were offered positons. Sara Heller can't say for certain why this was the case, but my experience with Corps tells me that when young people have a job or structured service, they have a purpose and gain confidence in their abilities. The most valuable thing they gain from an employment or service opportunity might not be the credentials they can put on a resume, but rather the empowerment that comes from being able to make a little money and make a positive contribution to the community. If we provide more of these opportunities to our young people, I feel confident that we won't just see a reduction in crime and fewer incarcerations; we'll see young people flourish and go on to do great things all because they had the chance to know what a hard day's work feels like, and learn that they are capable of much more.