On February 15th, just weeks after a bullet grazed an 11-month-old girl in the Bronx, a 19-year-old was fatally shot during her shift at Burger King, and two police officers were killed in Harlem, city leaders gathered for an announcement about summer youth employment.
This year, Mayor Eric Adams announced, a record-breaking 100,000 young New Yorkers would be working on the city’s dime.
“Our summer youth employment is crucial,” he told reporters at a press conference.
One official after the next said the boost in funding would help make communities safer by giving young people opportunities to thrive.
“We know that gang violence and gun violence is real, and it’s pervasive,” said the mayor, who included more funding for summer jobs as part of his Blueprint to End Gun Violence. “But if you want to stop someone from holding a steel gun in their hand, give them an opportunity to hold the tools they need to be productive as a citizen. And we know we can do it if we invest in the right way.”
Council Speaker Adrienne Adams echoed the mayor, adding, “These types of investments are essential to address and prevent the increased violence that our city and many other cities across the nation are facing.”
It is possible that one of the reasons that this type of program is effective is it gives you a very different group of peers that you’re interacting with.
And Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who for years has pushed to expand summer youth jobs and lobbied to keep the program intact during the pandemic, also tied the effort to public safety. “It is so important that we’re all together dealing with this gun violence,” he said.
Indeed, for years New York City has set aside taxpayer dollars to pay young people to work, with the promise that the investment would help them in school, prepare them for the workforce, and keep them out of trouble.
Gothamist spoke with more than a dozen researchers, city officials, employers, and youth participants about the work. They praised New York City’s program, while also noting ways it might further its impact. A growing body of research has found summer youth employment can prevent criminal justice contact, at least temporarily. One study suggests it can even save lives.
But many young people who want to participate aren’t selected. And for most of those who are, the jobs will end this month. At a time when violent crime is still above pre-pandemic levels and many New Yorkers are concerned about public safety, some interviewed wondered whether the city ought to add even more slots next summer – and consider keeping young people employed year-round.
‘It has helped me’
This summer, 14- to 24-year-olds are working at sports camps, food pantries, tech companies, and government offices. The youngest earn a $700 stipend for about a dozen hours of work each week, while those 16 and older can work up to 25 hours weekly and make the $15 minimum wage. Some are participating in person, and others doing virtual jobs. Several hundred youths are working with groups that specifically address violence.
One of the summer workers on the 13th floor of the NYPD’s headquarters downtown is 20-year-old Darlenys Garcia, who is assigned to the chief of patrol’s office.
Garcia is one of more than 800 young people working for the NYPD this summer. Not all are working to combat crime — some are repairing patrol cars or managing social media accounts. Garcia is tasked with sharing the department’s community-building work on Twitter. But she’s also hoping to make a direct impact on violence.
“Ever since I was 11 years old, I’ve always had an interest in being an officer,” she said.
Garcia has been accepted into the academy for this fall. She hopes to one day be a homicide detective. Now, she has mentors within the department whom she can ask for advice.
“How do I get there? What’s the best way, you know, to succeed into getting there and, you know, being the best that I can be in that position?” she said. “And they have answered and told me, you know, you need to make a certain amount of time on the job and do certain things and stuff like that. So, it has helped me.”
Career and vocational advice aren’t the only benefits. Multiple studies of summer youth employment have found participants are less likely to be arrested or convicted of crimes – at least in the short term.
The case for summer jobs
“The thing that is most striking to me is how robust the findings are of the same pattern,” said University of Pennsylvania researcher Judd Kessler. He said researchers have looked at Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, and found their programs consistently reduced criminal justice contact, even though they each operated a little differently.
Kessler’s team has spent years studying New York City’s program. A paper the researchers published last year uncovered multiple benefits for teens and young adults who participated between 2005 and 2008.
The study found participation reduced the chance of an arrest during the summer by 17%-23% for a felony arrest. And when it came to actually being convicted of a crime committed over the summer, the likelihood dropped by 31%, and 38% for a felony. Years later, participants from the 2005-2008 cohort were 10% less likely to have spent time in a New York state prison.
For an earlier study, the researchers also reviewed death records to see how many applicants who weren’t accepted had died by 2014. Then, they calculated the mortality rates for those who had participated, versus those who hadn’t. Kessler says they estimated the program had saved approximately seven lives for every 10,000 participants – or about 20 lives per year.
As an economist, Kessler said, it can be difficult to quantify the benefits of a program. But once he saw that lives were being saved, he said, it felt obvious that this one was worth the investment.
But many young people who want to participate can’t. Some are recruited directly by community organizations, while others are chosen through a lottery. In 2021, nearly 154,000 people applied for 75,000 jobs, according to the city’s annual report. That means more than half were not selected.
“We’re always in conversations with, you know, the mayor and our budget people to see exactly how we can improve on what we’re doing right now,” said Keith Howard, commissioner of the Department of Youth and Community Development, which oversees most of the summer jobs.
This year, the city is spending $236 million on the program. Howard, who participated in the program as a teenager, said he would love to have enough funding for universal youth employment. The Adams administration estimates in its Blueprint to End Gun Violence that at least 250,000 New Yorkers aged 16 to 24 are neither employed nor in school.
“But listen, 25,000 increase – 75,000 to 100,000 – that’s a magnificent and a major, significant investment,” Howard said.
According to the data, the benefits of the program are biggest for the young people who have been arrested before. And some groups do get priority in the lottery. The city reports that more than 90% of participants last year came from “high-need neighborhoods.”
But the program only sets aside a small percentage of spots for participants who are most vulnerable, like those who have been arrested or run away from home or live in public housing. This year, just 934 of the 100,000 participants are considered “justice involved,” according to DYCD. That’s down from about 1,900 in 2017. About 13,000 slots went to youths living in public housing.
Kessler said researchers are investigating how to design summer youth employment programs to maximize the benefits. Until more data is available, he cautioned against any drastic changes to the program’s design.
“It is possible that one of the reasons that this type of program is effective is it gives you a very different group of peers that you’re interacting with,” he said.
One employer in Queens is putting that hypothesis to the test.
‘Spreading the love’
On a steamy Wednesday afternoon in July, a few dozen kids and teenagers were cooling off in the air conditioning at an elementary school in Jamaica. Some were the city’s young summer workers, coaching children at a neighborhood basketball camp.
“We’ve actually been, like, exploring new places and trying to stop violence, you feel me?” said 15-year-old David Nolasco.
“And staying out of trouble,” his friend Aaron, 14, added.
“Yeah, and staying out of trouble,” Nolasco said. “Spreading the love.”
The two teens are spending their summer working for the King of Kings Foundation, a local nonprofit that works to prevent violence in southeast Queens as part of the city’s Crisis Management System. According to DYCD, 300 young people are working for CMS groups through the summer youth employment program this year.
King of Kings is employing 50 young people this summer — half through the city’s main youth employment program, and half through another one aimed specifically at teens who are most at risk of getting involved in violence. The funding for the jobs technically comes from separate buckets. But Khalilah Lomax, who runs both programs for King of Kings, said the participants aren’t thinking about that.
“From the naked eye, you can’t tell who’s high risk and who’s not,” she said. “When the kids are in an environment with other kids, they feel safer.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated researchers’ findings on the violence-reduction benefits of the summer youth employment program. Researchers estimated seven lives were saved for every 10,000 participants.