Published Online:

Limited Effectiveness Of Jobs Program Seen

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

WASHINGTON--President Clinton's hotly debated proposal to spend an extra $1 billion on summer-jobs programs for poor teenagers may prove to be medicine of only limited effectiveness even if it is ultimately approved by Congress, according to experts.

While such programs can give young people a short-term boost and help reduce the level of tension in urban areas, analysts suggest, they have little lasting educational or economic impact.

"It is certainly an immediate job-creation program,'' said Marion Pines, a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies at Johns Hopkins University. But "I'm not sure that would have been my first choice in terms of long-term employability.''

The Senate was expected this week to resume debate on a $16.3 billion Administration plan that includes spending to stimulate the economy and boost summer-jobs and -education programs. But the success of a filibuster before the Easter recess by Senate Republicans, who have strongly criticized most components of the package and the proposal to pay for it with deficit spending, has significantly reduced the chances that the stimulus bill will pass in its original form.

The summer-jobs provisions proposed by the Administration, coupled with already available funds, would enable some 1.3 million low-income 14- to 21-year-olds to obtain federally funded summer employment.

President Clinton has also challenged the business community to create a similar number of private-sector jobs this summer.

The Administration and the National Alliance of Business last week held a conference here on the effort for local officials and business leaders.

'Doesn't Work Miracles'

Administration officials have sold the jobs program primarily for its short-term benefits. They stress that it is part of a larger effort to improve the connection between school and work for students.

"Giving a poor kid a job and some tutoring over the summer doesn't work miracles,'' said Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich in a speech last month. But "calling the eight to 10 weeks a failure because it fails to alone improve a young person's chance to lead a productive life is like condemning the school-lunch program because it doesn't end malnutrition.''

During the eight to 10 weeks that summer employment typically lasts, a youth working 32 hours per week at the minimum wage can earn between $1,100 and $1,400--a sizable amount for a poor family.

Few economists or job-training experts question that an expansion of the youth program would help keep teenagers off the streets this summer and pump needed dollars into poverty-stricken areas.

"It's the only part of the economic-stimulus package that will directly and immediately benefit poor people, because the money will, in fact, go into the hands of low-income youth, who are going to spend it,'' said Alan Zuckerman, the executive director of the National Youth Employment Coalition. "And the first place they're going to spend it is in low-income neighborhoods where they live.''

'Too Small a Piece'

But while summer jobs may provide "fire insurance'' for the nation's cities, there is little evidence that such programs help young people land better jobs later on or have long-term educational benefits.

In general, there is a paucity of data about the impact of summer-jobs programs. But experts who have studied such efforts suggest that summer work experience by itself does little to improve future employability and earnings, for which more intensive skills training is needed.

One highly touted program, the Summer Training and Education Program, provides half-time work and half-time instruction in reading, mathematics, and life skills to low-income 14- and 15-year-olds.

On average, the program has been found to boost the reading- and math-test scores of participants by half a grade level during the summer.

But Public/Private Ventures, the Philadelphia-based nonprofit research organization that designed the program, found that it failed to reduce dropout and teen-pregnancy rates for participants four or five years down the road.

The summer-jobs program is "just too small a piece of the puzzle,'' according to Gary Walker, the executive vice president of P.P.V.

"We had a phenomenon of kids who were doing better,'' he said, "and then what happens is they turn around and go back to a school situation which is exacty like what they were failing in before.''

As a result of the study, said Laurie Levin, the national director of STEP, the program has paid more attention to building a four-year sequence of summer programs that could maintain youths' gains over time and create a carry-over into the school year.

"What we're talking about here is a summer effort,'' she said. "And with a summer effort you can expect a boost for kids. It's reasonable. It's fair. You're not going to change a life.''

'Learn From the Mistakes'

One of the strengths of STEP is that its curriculum and teaching methods have been created specifically for students who are performing poorly in school. It does not simply graft traditional summer-school offerings onto a jobs program.

In contrast, creating a strong, meaningful education component has not been a major focus of previous federal summer-jobs efforts.

An audit of last year's federal summer-employment program by the Labor Department's inspector general found that the remediation portion of the program was a "limited success.''

Many of the service-delivery areas studied made remedial training optional for program participants, or offered it only in certain locations or to certain age groups. The majority of areas studied did not serve those most in need, the audit found, and coordination with local schools did not always occur. In addition, localities defined "remediation'' in widely varying ways.

Partly in response to such criticisms, the Administration has targeted one-third of the $1 billion supplement for education.

"We have designed this new program to learn from the mistakes of the past,'' said Mr. Reich, "and to build on its successes. For the first time, the Department of Labor will work closely with the Department of Education on this project, and invest substantial resources to provide educational enrichment.''

Under the program, each participant will receive approximately 90 hours of academic enrichment, either in the classroom or on the job.

Typically, Mr. Reich said, disadvantaged youths fall a third of a grade level behind during the summer break. The I.G. audit found that when remediation was provided, most participants maintained their grade levels or posted learning gains.

But while observers described the heightened emphasis on education as a step in the right direction, they questioned whether sites would be able to gear up such programs on relatively short notice.

"The real challenge in most communities is not the creation of jobs but the creation of viable education-enrichment structures that complement those jobs,'' said Robert Knight, the president of the National Association of Private Industry Councils. "That's something that, at the scale proposed here, was in place last summer in only a handful of communities.''

'They Know It's a Sham'

The demand to rapidly create so many summer jobs could lead to a decay in the quality of the work experience itself, experts warned.

Part of the Administration's proposed $1 billion expansion will be funded with more than $250 million left over from last summer, when Congress passed a $500 million supplemental appropriation so late in the year that localities were unable to spend it all.

To avoid a similar problem this year, the Labor Department in March sent all states and cities preliminary estimates of how much money they would get if the Administration's proposals were approved.

But with the fate of the stimulus package up in the air, the prospect of creating up to an additional 700,000 federally funded jobs this summer--on top of the 600,000 already budgeted for--is a daunting one.

"If we double the number of slots,'' said Sar A. Levitan, a professor of economics at George Washington University, "then obviously it would be more difficult to arrange for meaningful and useful work experience.''

Since its inception, critics have maintained that the jobs program provides "make work'' for teenagers and uninspired school courses.

Robert Woodson, the president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprises, said the nature of such programs "actually discourages a responsible work ethic.''

"It's treated really as a social program, and not as a real work experience,'' he contended. "These young people in the summer-jobs program will get paid, whether they perform or not. So, after a while, kids begin to treat it as an entitlement, and they know it's a sham.''

In contrast, the Administration claims the program can have a strong impact on the work ethic of teenagers, teach them appropriate workplace behavior, and instill discipline.

Evidence for that point of view is provided by an evaluation of the non-federally-funded New York City Partnership summer-jobs program, a collaborative effort between the business community and the public sector. That study found that 17 percent of the participants sampled were still working for their 1991 summer-jobs employers after the summer was over, and 11 percent returned to the same employers the next summer.

In addition, half the 1991 participants and two-thirds of the younger 1992 participants said the experience helped them make concrete career decisions and become interested in a career field.

Jobs working in nursing homes, maintaining public parks, repairing low-income housing, and tutoring or caring for young children can also provide needed community services.

But experts note that such payoffs largely depend on the quality of the placements.

"If they're good placements, then I think it's a worthwhile investment,'' said Paul Osterman, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "If they're quickly-thrown-together placements, then I think there's trouble.''

Based on interviews with more than 1,200 participants and visits to more than 840 worksites across the nation, the inspector general's report concluded that the 1992 summer program was a "success.''

Participants were productive, interested, closely supervised, and learning skills they could apply to school or future jobs, the audit found.

'See What Works'

In his speech last month, Mr. Reich asserted that the Labor Department has reduced "the number of make-work jobs to about 15 percent--probably a better average than the rest of the economy.''

In addition, he said, federal officials will work closely with both the public and private sectors at the design stage to structure the job experiences more than in the past and to evaluate the results. The government will also require that program participants be assessed before and after their summer experiences to determine their learning gains.

"This is, in some ways, an opportunity to see what works,'' he stressed.

That view was seconded by experts, who said the Administration should focus on developing promising prototypes this summer that could be carried over into the school year and into long-range planning.

Still, the efforts to tighten up and improve the program have not assuaged the concerns of some critics.

Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has monitored federal summer-jobs programs since the days of the Johnson Administration said, "I think it's kind of distressing to spend so much money on these programs and achieve so little lasting benefits.''

"If we're going to spend a couple of billion,'' he said, "it would be awfully nice if the kids were more likely to graduate from high school and had a better ability to read or do arithmetic, or if they actually got more and better jobs when they did graduate.''

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories