Barron’s put the full text of the article on Summer Jobs online here
MONDAY, JULY 20, 2009 BARRONS
Playing at Work Isn’t Productive
By JAMES BOVARD
LONG BEFORE THE AGE OF OBAMA, FEDERAL SPENDING became the panacea for social problems. Not content with new spending for new ideas, from high-speed passenger-rail services to bankruptcy bailouts, the Obama administration has revived spending for bad old ideas. Nothing better illustrates this folly than federally funded summer-job programs.
Congress torpedoed such programs a decade ago, but President Barack Obama’s team revived them in the stimulus package passed in February. The federal government is providing $1.2 billion to hire 125,000 teens and young adults this summer. Local and state governments are plowing in many millions of dollars more to hire thousands of additional youth. The pay rate varies from the new minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, to $10 an hour. The vast majority of jobs are at government agencies or nonprofit organizations.
National Urban League chief Marc Morial declares the summer jobs will build character: “If we want urban kids to value work, we have to give them work.”
In Philadelphia, teens are getting paid to engage in high-tech scavenger hunts. In Cincinnati, small Kentucky towns, and elsewhere, youth are enjoying painting large pictures on building walls. In Memphis, lucky teens are being paid to “shadow” adults with real government jobs. And in the nation’s capital, 800 young people are enrolled this year in the Green Summer Job Corps, wearing T-shirts trumpeting the name of Mayor Adrian Fenty. Among the Corps projects: “maintenance of schoolyard butterfly habitats” and “community outreach on environmental issues.” The outreach, however, got off to a rocky start after Corps members filled the streets and sidewalks of Washington D.C.’s Adams-Morgan neighborhood with leaflets touting the program. The city should have offered other youth summer jobs cleaning up the mess.
The D.C. program had bigger troubles last year, including overspending its budget by 150% and having no idea how many kids were enrolled or where they purportedly worked. D.C. paid kids to attend a sports camp, take ballet lessons, and hold a poetry reading. A spokeswoman for Mayor Fenty acknowledged that “no substantive evaluations on program quality were conducted.”
Mayors and members of Congress show up frequently in media photo opportunities for summer-job programs. But the programs are usually gauged simply by raw numbers — by how many kids get a job. D.C. council member Michael Brown requested two summer jobs participants to work in his office, but the mayor’s job corps sent him 10. He suggested at a public hearing that the program might be “child-dumping” to boost the number of kids enrolled.
The Wrong Lessons
Advocates claim that job programs give kids lessons that will change their lives, but the lessons are often of doubtful value. The Tulare County, Calif. summer-job program provides kids with “workshops on safety, ethics and life skills” — as well as “referrals to armed services.”
True, there are things more absurd than government agencies’ paying teens for a day to learn how to find and keep a job. But the highlight of a job-preparation “summit” in Orlando, Fla., was a motivational speaker named Marvellous Mark, whose slogan is “Opportunity Rocks.” According to Workforce Central Florida (a successor to state unemployment offices, which also dispense federal job-training funds in the area), Marvellous Mark’s presentation “is based on this simple premise: The qualities successful rock stars have are also found in every successful worker.”
The key thing kids should learn from their first jobs is to produce enough value that someone will voluntarily pay them a wage. But the goal for summer-job programs is often simply to make kids feel good about themselves. Many programs bend over backward to avoid firing kids, regardless of their behavior. The D.C. program last year continued paying almost 2,000 kids long after they had achieved a record of perfect absenteeism.
Politicians brag that government-funded summer jobs helps kids get a foot into the labor market. However, the federal hiring criteria for this year’s program could affix a scarlet letter on youths later seeking real private jobs. Most kids who receive a federally subsidized summer job must possess at least one “barrier” to employment, such as being a school dropout, pregnant, criminal offender, runaway, homeless or deficient in “basic skills.”
The precedents don’t bode well. In 1985, the National Academy of Sciences reported that the summer-job program failed to reduce the crime rate among participants. As for the economics, a Health and Human Services Department-funded study of summer-job programs in the 1980s by two Harvard University professors concluded that “roughly 40% of jobs simply displace private employment” for minority youth.
Forty years ago, the General Accounting Office condemned federal summer-job programs because youth “regressed in their conception of what should reasonably be required in return for wages paid.” In 1979, GAO reported that the vast majority of urban teens in the program “were exposed to a worksite where good work habits were not learned or reinforced, or realistic ideas on expectations in the real world of work were not fostered.” Persistent negative evaluations eventually convinced Congress to terminate federal funding in the late 1990s.
The federal government has run more than 100 different job-training programs since the 1960s — dozens of them targeted at youth — but has consistently betrayed people who trusted Uncle Sam to give them marketable skills. An Urban Institute study found that participation in the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (1974-’83) produced “significant earnings losses for young men of all races.” And a 1992 U.S. Labor Department study concluded that federal training “actually reduced the earnings of male out-of-school youths.”
There is no reason to imagine that the revived summer-job programs will be less harmful than previous ones. “Make work” and “fake work” are a grave disservice to young people. American teenagers should not be sacrificed on an altar of political photo opportunities.
JAMES BOVARD is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy (Palgrave, 2006) as well as Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty (St. Martin’s, 1994) and other books