By MARC H. MORIAL
National Urban League
“The Harlem Youth Action Project was a city-funded attempt to keep some of the smarter kids off the street … the next time I saw Jet magazine there I was, all the way in the top left-hand corner of a news photo, leaning over Dr. King with my trusty tape recorder in my hand, looking for the last word. I was anything but a Power Memorial junior; I was starting to feel like what I thought of as a man.”
– Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
When I was sworn in as mayor of New Orleans in 1994, I was taking the helm of a city that led the nation in violent crime. Although I had many bold and ambitious plans for the city, confronting violent crime had to my first priority.
A major component of my anti-crime agenda involved summer jobs for teenagers, which not only would give young people an alternative to criminal activity, but also provide income to families in need.
With a lot of hard work, our program was successful. Violent crimes and murders dropped by 60%, the unemployment rate was cut in half and New Orleans’ poverty rate fell dramatically.
Today the nation finds itself facing another rise in violent crime. We’re also faced with another opportunity to reduce not only the crime rate, but the unemployment and poverty rates, too.
The Biden Administration has recognized the importance of summer jobs for youth in combating a rising crime rate. In its Comprehensive Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gun Crime and Ensure Public Safety released just over a week ago, the Administration noted that young people are disproportionately likely to be involved in gun violence, either as perpetrators or victims. Youth employment programs, including summer jobs programs, can reduce their involvement in violence by as much as 45%.
That’s why cities across the nation have an obligation to use the funding they received through the American Rescue Plan to create summer jobs.
Of the $350 billion directed to state and local governments, more than $45 billion is directly targeted to metropolitan city governments where violent crime is most serious.
One study cited by the Biden Administration showed that violent crime arrests dropped dramatically among students who took part in Chicago’s “One Summer Chicago Plus.” The program offered an 8-week summer job at minimum wage, an adult job mentor, and for some youth, a cognitive behavioral therapy-based curriculum.
The researchers wrote: “Summer jobs programs can reduce a hugely socially costly outcome at a relatively low cost; we estimate that so we estimate that social benefits are likely to justify program costs and may outweigh them by as much as 11 to 1.”
A Brookings Institution study of Boston’s Summer Youth Employment Program found a 35% reduction in arrests among participants.
More importantly, the effects appear to be lasting. These programs do more than keep young people occupied; they teach valuable social and emotional skills that can alter the course of a young person’s life.
Youth who participated in Boston’s program showed improved attitudes toward their communities. They were more likely to report that they had a lot to contribute, and that they felt connected to their neighborhood. They also were more likely to report knowing how to manage their emotions, how to ask for help when they needed it, and how to constructively resolve conflict with a peer.
Boston has already announced that it will use American Rescue Plan funds to expand the Mayor’s Summer Youth Program.
As the nation emerges from the economic crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s crucial that we avoid past patterns and practices that created the economic despair that contributes to violent crime. Summer jobs for youth are a proven solution.
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League. He can be reached through https://nul.org.