Summertime Blues

Rising Summer Teen Unemployment a Growing Problem for Our Nation

Desmond Brown details the costs to our society of teenage summer unemployment and offers solutions to this persistently worsening problem, especially among poor teens.

Summer is a time for baseball games, beaches, and barbeques for many of America’s youth, but also a time for a summer job. For many teens, however, this summer will mean unemployment—a troubling development for our national economic competitiveness and long-term prosperity.

Summer jobs traditionally offer the opportunity for young people to experience the benefits of a paycheck for the first time. Unfortunately, the summer of 2011 is projected to have one of the lowest summer employment rates for teens in decades. A recent Center for Labor Market Studies report estimates that only one in four teens between the ages of 16-19 will be employed during the months of June, July, and August. Over the past several years, the number of teens working during the summer months dropped dramatically. Between 2000 and 2010 the rate of youth summer employment fell from a high of 46 percent to 27 percent. This summer, that percentage is expected to drop to 25 percent.

The summertime employment options will be even bleaker for those who are most in need. A recent analysis by the Economic Policy Institute shows that teens from poor families were less likely to find summer jobs than their middle-class peers. Poor African American teens were the hardest hit group, with only 20 percent able to find work, compared with 31 percent of poor Hispanic teens, and 36 percent of poor white teens.

Without employment opportunities or other programs to keep teens engaged, many will turn to other less constructive endeavors to occupy their time during the summer months. Research from the Center for Labor Market Studies shows that unemployed teens are more likely to engage in criminal activities and have higher rates of teen pregnancy. Both of these activities place higher long-term economic burden on society and are leading indicators for a life of poverty and economic hardship.

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy estimates that only 40 percent of mothers who have children before age 18 ever graduate from high school, compared to about 75 percent of similarly situated young women who delay childbearing until age 20 or 21. What’s more, over half of all mothers on welfare had their first child as a teenager.

Staying home and out of trouble is obviously the best case scenario for the large number of teens who are expected to be unemployed this summer. Yet even if unemployed teens just stay home, they will still miss critical early work experience, the chance to contribute to their families’ finances, and the opportunity to positively connect with and contribute to their communities. For teens from disadvantaged communities, the loss of income and work experience will push them further away from achieving economic security.

Recognizing the need to curb this staggering decline in youth employment, Congress provided $1.2 billion to state workforce development systems to fund summer employment and training for disadvantaged youth as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. This program placed more than 350,000 youth in summer jobs. A February 2010 Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. report demonstrated the positive impact of the program. It showed that more than 82 percent of the youth who participated in the summer jobs program completed their work experience, with nearly 75 percent achieving measurable increases in their work readiness skills.

Since the expiration of this funding in fiscal year 2010, Congress has failed to provide resources to maintain summer employment opportunities for teens. In the House of Representatives, the Congressional Black Caucus championed additional resources for summer youth employment, proposing that Congress spends $1.3 billion to provide employment opportunities for an estimated 300,000 youth during the summer months. But this proposal and other recommendations from youth advocates across the political spectrum failed to garner sufficient support.

In fact, earlier this year Congress moved in the opposite direction, reducing funding for several key youth-related employment programs for the remainder of FY 2011 through September. These reductions included a $96.5 million cut to the Workforce Investment Act Youth Formula and Competitive Grants, and $22.5 million for YouthBuild. Both the WIA youth formula grants and YouthBuild provide training and employment opportunities for young workers. YouthBuild provides the added benefits of allowing low-income youth ages 16 to 24 to work toward their high school diploma or so-called GED equivalent degree while acquiring job skills by building affordable housing for low-income people.

Without critical federal investments, cash-strapped states and local communities simply cannot afford to develop the types of youth training programs that have provided teen summer employment for decades. The lack of targeted programs for teens this summer will force those seeking employment to compete with more skilled workers who are out of work due to the tight labor market. And with a national unemployment rate hovering near double digits, teens looking for work will face serious competition.

Needed: An engagement strategy

Developing a national youth engagement strategy is a viable and necessary approach to cut poverty in the United States. Policymakers must develop a comprehensive plan to support at-risk teens, reconnect those who are disconnected from their communities and families, and expand employment opportunities for young workers.

Investing in summer jobs is a cost effective approach to prepare future workers. Teen employment provides many positive long-term benefits. Chief among them is that it provides useful employment skills and builds a strong work ethic among our future workforce.

Summer employment also provides an income stream for youth and their families, which can significantly lift a family’s income and reduce the economic hardships that many low-income families face. Additionally, employed youth are more likely to be connected to local businesses and volunteer opportunities, allowing them to remain engaged in their communities.

At a time when youth unemployment continues to grow, providing targeted federal investments for youth summer jobs is an obvious and cost effective way to prepare future workers, increase resources to poor families and communities, and reduce counterproductive activities among youth. When both chambers of Congress return to Washington for their summer session, our elected representatives simply must take steps to ensure that 2011 will be the last summer of record teen unemployment.

Desmond Brown is a consultant to the Center for American Progress Action Fund’s Half in Ten antipoverty project and an expert on poverty issues and welfare reform.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.