Study: Summer Job Programs Mitigate Violent Crime Among Disadvantaged Youth

A recent study focused on Chicago youth found that disadvantaged youth with summer jobs are 43 percent less likely to commit violent crimes than those who are not in summer job programs. The study was published by the journal Science, and according to Sara Heller, a criminologist at University of Pennsylvania, it is one of the first studies that takes a convincing look at the impact of summer job programs on reducing violent crime rates among youth.

“I was really surprised that no one had done a rigorous study on the impact of summer jobs on violent crime rates,” Heller said.

Federally-funded summer job programs have been around since 1964, and past studies have shown that intensive youth programs do mitigate violent crime occurrences among youth. But they have not been able to declare whether short-term summer job programs could have the same impact as long, intensive youth programs.

What distinguishes Heller’s study from others that have looked at the impact of summer job programs is that it was a randomized control trial-one that goes as far as to show that the summer job program Heller looked at did contribute to reduced violent crimes.

Heller’s study took a clinical approach, similar to those used to test medicine, and had students apply for the summer job program and randomly chose students who will be participating through a random lottery. Those who were picked were accepted into the job program group (Heller called it the treatment group), and the other applicants who didn’t get in became the participants of the control group.

Yet Alex Yufik, a board certified forensic psychologist and a lecturer at the University of Southern California, points out that it is premature to attribute summer job programs as the direct cause of decreased violent crime rates among disadvantaged youth.

“First, I think the research does in fact support a conclusion that jobs programs do reduce crime, but we don’t know why,” Yufik said. “That is, there could be many other variables that may be related or unrelated to summer jobs, we just don’t know at this point.”

The study took place in 13 high-violence schools in areas of Chicago where 1,634 students participated in the summer of 2012. Almost all of them were minorities, and more than 90 percent were on free or reduced lunch. Three-hundred-fifty students were randomly assigned to 25-hour per week summer jobs, another 350 were given 15-hour per week jobs along with 10 hours of social-emotional learning classes “aimed at teaching youth to understand and manage the aspects of their thoughts, emotions, and behavior that might interfere with employment.” The remaining students carried on with their lives as normal. The program lasted eight weeks and the participants were followed by Heller and other researchers for 16 weeks after the program.

“We tracked the administrative data of both groups and, because those who weren’t in the program (the control group) were chosen by a lottery, we are sure that like any other clinical trial, any differences after the program are because of the program itself,” Heller said.

Heller said she considers the conclusion of her study to be a “very promising first step and proof that summer jobs can, in fact, reduce violence.” She added that not all summer job programs are equal, and that policymakers should be careful not to assume that every type of program works for everyone .

“Without a doubt, summer programs like these are absolutely a great investment,” Yufik agreed. He believes that investing in preventive practices and early intervention such as summer jobs, is much more cost effective and highly beneficial to reducing violent crime.

Heller hopes that the findings of her study will motivate further research on these types of programs.

According to the study abstract, “In a randomized controlled trial among 1,634 disadvantaged high school youth in Chicago, assignment to a summer jobs program decreases violence by 43 percent over 16 months (3.95 fewer violent-crime arrests per 100 youth). The decline occurs largely after the 8-week intervention ends. The results suggest the promise of using low-cost, well-targeted programs to generate meaningful behavioral change, even with a problem as complex as youth violence.”

“I hope that people get excited about the findings of this study and that it will serve as an example for other cities to follow – to evaluate which of their programs work and for whom,” Heller said.

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