Science: Summer Employment Decreases Youth Violence in Chicago

Offering disadvantaged youth summer employment, even if it's part-time and pays minimum wage, might be a relatively cheap and effective way to decrease youth violence, according to a new study.

One Summer Plus participants were less likely to commit violent crimes for more than a year after their summer employment. | One Summer Chicago

Sara Heller from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago Crime Lab studied 1,634 middle- and high-school students from particularly violent and poor neighborhoods in the city of Chicago, who participated in a summer jobs program called One Summer Plus.

The results of her study suggest that just 25 hours of minimum-wage employment each week during summer break was enough to reduce teen violence by 43% over the course of 16 months.

Her findings are published in the 5 December issue of Science.

Previous studies have suggested that only employment opportunities with very high levels of investment in both time and resources can reduce crime, but Heller notes that such studies have generally targeted youth already out of school and struggling in the labor market.

"Some research suggests that leaving school is a key turning point in youths' lives," explained Heller. "So it seems reasonable to think that — past that point — very disconnected youth would need pretty intensive intervention to change their criminal behavior."

"But this [One Summer Plus] program serves youth before they leave school, before they have struggled to find a job and had nothing to do all day," she said. "For them, it might take less of a push to change their behavior."

The researcher said her study's emphasis on youth who are still in school shifts the focus of such interventions from remediation to prevention.

The One Summer Plus program places 8-12th graders in nonprofit and government jobs, such as summer camp counselors, workers in a community garden, or office assistants for an alderman, and it assigns one adult mentor to about every 10 students. Half of the youth in the program also received social-emotional learning (SEL), which teaches youth to understand and manage emotions and behavior that might interfere with employment.

"The study population was at an age when violence peaks, when small arguments over seemingly nothing often blow up into fights or shots — during summer, when violence rises," said Heller. "And individually, these students were starting to show risk signs of violence. They were missing an average of six weeks of school in the year before the program, and one in five already had an arrest record."

Heller used administrative records from Chicago Public Schools as well as arrest records from the Chicago Police Department to monitor the youth for 13 months after the One Summer Plus program ended. She found that students offered the program were 43% less likely to be arrested for a violent crime — but not necessarily other types of crimes — compared to peers who applied but did not win the lottery for a program slot.

This drop in violent crime occurred largely after the One Summer Plus program ended and it persisted for more than a year, so the decline was not simply due to youths having less opportunity to commit crime, Heller said. There was also no apparent difference in behavior between the students who worked summer jobs and those who worked jobs and received SEL, perhaps because the jobs provided some of the same skills as SEL.

"[The SEL] aimed to teach youth to how recognize how their own thoughts and emotions lead to their behavior, how to use that recognition to better handle conflict situations, and how to set and achieve personal goals," according to Heller. "As an example of why this is important, one of the employers told me that the biggest problem with young employees is how defensive they are. Often the first time you offer instruction or constructive criticism, such as 'wear closed-toed shoes to work,' they lose it and snap back at you."

"In a job, that snap reaction can get you fired," she continued. "In a social interaction on the street, it can lead to violence. The idea of SEL is to help teach youth to recognize when something like that is about to happen and act a little less reflexively."

Heller suggests that summer employment may similarly teach youth to process social information, manage emotion, and to achieve goals more successfully.

"A summer job's paycheck helps to get these youth in the door at this key point in their life course," concluded Heller. "And then it teaches them skills and responsibilities that, while designed to help them be good employees, also help them walk away from a fight."