Just Where's the Cure for the Summer Time Blues?
More than 50 years ago, Eddie Cochran captured the frustration of American teenagers with his hit single Ain't No Cure for the Summer Time Blues. He sang about a young man lamenting that he has to work all summer long, doesn't get time to spend with his girlfriend, and can't borrow the family car if he doesn't have money. Today's teens would sing a much different and far worse song. They can't get jobs in the first place.
For the last four summers, America's teens have been employed in record low numbers, and this summer is gearing up to be no different. The number of teens working has declined precipitously over the last decade, falling from 45 percent in 2000 to 26 percent in 2010, a major employment crisis for youth.
This summer, the Center for Labor Market Studies anticipates that only one in four teens between 16 and 19 will have employment. This means about 12 million of the nation's young people will be idle. Without work, many of these teens will waste three months being non-productive or, worse, involved in dangerous or criminal activities.
Low-income youth and minority youth of all income levels are far less likely to obtain employment than whites. In June 2010, black teens of all socioeconomic levels had an employment rate of only 15.2 percent, making them 53 percent less likely to work than white teens. Low-income black teens fared far worse, with only 9 percent of them employed. Although Hispanic youth were the most likely minority group to work, they still lagged behind whites. Black male teenagers living in urban communities are the least likely to obtain summer employment. They are also the ones most at risk for engaging in perilous activities due to lack of connection to positive summer opportunities. The teens who need employment and stand to gain the most from the experience are the least likely to get it.
Teens who cannot obtain employment are at a disadvantage. Summer employment is known to reap several benefits for youth, particularly low-income youth, including academic gains in mathematics and reading, greater attachment to the labor market, higher earnings in early adulthood, and decreased involvement in violent or criminal activities. Many low-income youth also use the earnings from summer jobs to supplement family income, to purchase necessary clothing and school supplies for the upcoming school year, and to support their recreational activities that parents could not otherwise afford.
In the last ten years, the nation has experienced two economic recessions. The recession of 2001 was marked by a significant decrease in teen employment. As the nation recovered and employment rolls began to increase, employment rates for the teen population did not bounce back. It appears that the same is true for this most recent recession. Despite increasing overall employment, the number of teens in jobs continues to fall.
There is a cure for teens' summer time employment woes, however. While there has been serious disinvestment in resources to support teen employment in the last decade, the federal funding of summer jobs through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was a good sign and offered a glimmer of hope. Local communities, with relatively short lead time, put more than 312,000 youth to work during the summer of 2009. However, despite rising youth unemployment, little has been done since then.
Federal policymakers should focus on a more intentional, thoughtful, and sustained approach to youth employment that seriously weighs the value of investing in the future of America's workforce. They can put in place policies and resources to promote a comprehensive youth employment strategy that includes the reinstatement of federal funding for summer jobs and other paid work experience opportunities such as service and youth corps, transitional jobs, internships, and on-the-job-training. This critical first step will ensure greater labor market outcomes for youth. The federal government, states and communities also should invest in year-round employment opportunities for youth, particularly for older youth and those who are currently disconnected from the labor market and do not have a high school credential. Their future success depends on a strategy that reengages them in learning and training to put them on a pathway to successful and sustainable employment. Finally, resources must be targeted to low-income and minority communities where the need is greatest.