The conventional wisdom among social scientists is that there’s little payoff in investing in troubled teenagers. As the University of Chicago economist James J. Heckman argued in 2011, “we overinvest in attempting to remediate the problems of disadvantaged adolescents and underinvest in the early years of disadvantaged children,” when the potential gains are supposedly the largest.
But this consensus is wrong, as we now know from recent scholarship. Take YouthBuild, which runs 260 programs in 46 states for about 10,000 16- to 24-year-olds. Nearly all of them high-school dropouts and poor; 31 percent have a criminal record, and 29 percent are parents.
YouthBuild’s model is straightforward — half academics and half on-the-job training. “In high school, no one gave a damn, but here, they really care about you,” one young man at the YouthBuild program center in Cambridge, Mass., told me. “They have your back.”
Kids who have “reached a dead end” are offered “a community that helps them find their purpose,” Dorothy Stoneman, who founded YouthBuild, told me. Seventy-seven percent of those who join earn a high school diploma, a G.E.D. or an industry-recognized credential, and 61 percent are placed in jobs and postsecondary education. The recidivism rate, within one year of enrollment in a YouthBuild program for those who have been in prison, is under 10 percent, well below the average.
Teachers and counselors make themselves available around the clock, and not just for schoolwork — they go to court with their students and help them get a driver’s license or draft a college application. Most of the participants build or repair homes for poor or homeless people, earning a modest stipend.
Melody Barnes, formerly President Obama’s chief domestic policy adviser, says YouthBuild graduates are “determined, smart and civic-minded, and but for programs like this one they would have been left behind,” she said.
Summer-job programs zero in on teenagers who are on the cusp of dropping out. Left to their devices, odds are that they’ll wind up on the streets or in jail. Summer internships are intended to reverse this trajectory by giving youngsters solid work experience and a paycheck, as well as the skills that spell success: dependability, perseverance, being a team player, understanding when to walk away from conflict.
Since the 1960s, New York City has run the nation’s largest publicly managed summer jobs program. Nearly 50,000 14- to 24-four-year-olds spend six weeks working, not only in publicly funded day care centers, summer camps, hospitals and city agencies, but also high-tech firms and Fortune 500 companies. After Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012, interns helped clean the city’s beaches.
Because there are more applicants than jobs, the young employees are selected by lottery; less than half of applicants are accepted. My colleague, Alexander Gelber, and his fellow economists Adam Isen at the Treasury Department and Judd B. Kessler at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, used this natural experiment to track nearly 300,000 adolescents who entered the lottery between 2005 and 2008.
The program kept many of them from getting into trouble. Those who were 19 or older during the summer they worked were 54 percent less likely to wind up in a New York State prison than those who didn’t have that experience. They were nearly 20 percent less likely to die young. Because homicide accounted for fully half of the deaths in their peer group, it’s plausible that the “soft skills” they acquired enabled them to avoid possibly deadly situations.
A 2012 study by Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University found that attendance improved, especially for youths in serious academic trouble. About 100 more students with low prior attendance passed the state’s high-stakes English and math exams than those who were turned down by the program, giving them a shot at college.
Chicago began a new summer jobs initiative in 2012. Teenage violence — especially murders of young black men — was a major concern. The hope was that, through a combination of work experience and intense mentoring — a similar model as YouthBuild — adolescents could learn to stop and think before turning a conflict into an assault.
Among those who held summer jobs, there were 43 percent fewer arrests for violent crime over the next 16 months, compared with those who hadn’t participated, a study last year found. “This impact wasn’t just because these teens were busier,” Sara Heller, a criminologist at Penn, told me. “Most of the decline happened afterward. This moment in kids’ lives — when they are showing signs of disconnection from school and may have gotten in trouble with the law, but haven’t dropped out — may be the sweet spot for low-cost interventions.”
More than five million young men and women between the ages of 18 and 24 are neither working nor in school. And every year, 1.3 million teenagers drop out of high school. If no one reaches out to these disengaged youths, many of them face bleak futures — “being in jail or dead,” as Ms. Stoneman bluntly put it. We must invest in programs that can turn things around for these kids.
Cross-posted from New York Times’ Sunday Review.