The District of Columbia’s Summer Youth Employment Program starts June 30 and continues through Aug. 8. D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray is attempting to avoid the front-page bureaucratic train wrecks that have often trademarked the program since the 1980s. However, the summer jobs programs have a long history of blighting work ethics and spawning delusions about how paychecks are earned.
Prior to the launch of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, teenagers were more likely to find private jobs during the summer. Then politicians decided that kids would be better off when government provided them experiences that involved far more social work than sweating. In 1969, the General Accounting Office condemned federally funded summer jobs programs because youth “regressed in their conception of what should reasonably be required in return for wages paid.” A decade later, the General Accounting Office reported that the vast majority of urban teens in the program “were exposed to a worksite where good work habits were not learned or reinforced, or realistic ideas on expectations in the real world of work were not fostered.”
In 1979, then-Mayor Marion Barry revolutionized the local summer jobs program and made it part of his permanent political campaign. Posters distributed by the D.C. Department of Employment Services proclaimed: “Mayor Marion Barry Jr. — No Other City [sic] in the World Has Matched His Commitment to Youth.” Youth were continually given the impression that the mayor personally provide them with jobs.
The largest local job program was the Marion Barry Youth Leadership Institute, which paid almost 600 youth a year to attend its summer program. In July 1989, when I was writing an article for Reader’s Digest, I attended a morning session and saw youth “working” by having a rowdy talk over whether “women are not interested in sex” and whether “men want women to be submissive.” Many youths were shouting, jumping up, throwing paper clips, punching and stroking each other, and few were paying attention to the group leader. In the afternoon, the youth were paid to work at volleyball, swimming, basketball and aerobics.
The institute was closely linked to Mr. Barry and held election-eve rallies to encourage young people to vote. The fact that the U.S. Labor Department would bankroll such a brazen political operation was symptomatic of brain-dead “oversight” at the federal level.
Though the local program is less brazenly political than in the 1980s, it still produces plenty of absurdities. In 2010, the last year of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s reign, youths wearing the bright blue “Mayor’s Conservation Corps” T-shirts were targeted for robbery on summer-job paydays. The Gray administration responded in 2011 by ditching the T-shirts and deploying D.C. firefighters to key street corners on payday to dissuade muggers.
The D.C. program made national news two years ago after it was disclosed that the jobs program was paying hundreds of kids to attend summer school. That bonanza was targeted to kids with poor academic and behavioral records. Other teens would naturally perceive this as a subsidy for causing trouble and slacking off during the normal school year.
In his first year in office, Mr. Gray at least verbally set a different tone at the start of the summer jobs program: “We’re doing radical things, like having kids come every day, show up on time, get along with people, and having something really to do when [they] get there. A job ought to be a job.” His comment was an implicit condemnation of the program’s history and an admission that kids had been badly served.
Regardless of Mr. Gray’s intention, the program continues sending the wrong signals to young participants. In the private sector, a youth keeps a job by producing enough to earn his pay. In the public sector, administrators earn brownie points by never firing or dismissing any teens. Pampering kids with feel-good experiences is no way to prepare them for jobs that are often tedious, strenuous and difficult. Summer youth “jobs” often make kids unfit to provide a day’s work for a day’s pay.
If all of these youths had nowhere else to go, the Summer Youth Employment Program might not be such a scourge on their characters. However, local governments such as the District’s have long been aggressive employers of first resort for young people. A 1984 federally funded study by Harvard professors concluded that “roughly 40 percent of [Summer Youth Employment Program] jobs simply displace private employment” for minority youth. This is especially unfortunate since, as Vice President Walter F. Mondale’s Task Force on Youth Unemployment reported in 1980, “private employment experience is deemed far more attractive to prospective employers than public work.” A 1985 National Academy of Sciences report found that government employment programs isolate disadvantaged youth, thus making it harder for them to fit into the real job market.
Despite the dismal record, the Obama administration is pushing to revive federally funded summer jobs on a massive scale. In its 2015 budget proposal, the Obama team is pushing “Summer Jobs Plus” — a $2.5 billion so-called “investment to support opportunities for hundreds of thousands of low-income youth.” The proposal includes “a $1 billion innovation fund to provide competitive grants to support promising and innovative employment and training strategies designed to improve outcomes for low-income youth.” The Labor Department has been running such programs for most of the past half-century, and there is no reason to expect bureaucrats to get it right next time.
In the coming weeks, we will probably hear of numerous D.C. Summer Youth Employment Program boondoggles. The greatest harm will be to young participants who are led to mistake “make work” and “fake work” for honest jobs. Teenagers should no longer be sacrificed on an altar of political photo ops.
James Bovard is the author of “Attention Deficit Democracy” (Palgrave, 2006) and “Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty” (St. Martin’s, 1994).