Youth Employment Crisis Requires Stronger Responses Than Brookings Report Proposes
A sobering report was released this week by the Brookings Institution and the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University that shows a precipitous drop in national employment levels for teens aged 16-19 between 2000 and 2012.
Using American Community Survey microdata and Local Area Unemployement Statistics, researchers led by Northeastern's Andrew Sum ranked the top 100 metropolitan areas in the U.S. on the employment rate for 16-19 year olds (as well as 20-24 year olds, and people age 25 and up) for the years 2000 and 2012. They then compared the percentage change in teen unemployment and the change in rank for each area between those years.
They also ranked those areas by the number of "disconnected youth" who were not working, not in school, and have less than an associate's degree; and also by the overall unemployment rate.
So how did the Boston area do? Not well.
In 2000, 44.9 percent of 16-19 year olds were employed - giving us a rank of 48 out of 100 metro areas.
In 2012, 33.3 percent of 16-19 year olds in the Boston area were employed - an 11.6 percent drop in employed youth, yet ironically our rank went up to 25 out of 100 metro areas. Which shows the depth of the teen employment crisis nationwide. In a period when many teens' families really need the extra income.
On the "up" side, we ranked 4 out of 100 metro areas in our percentage of "disconnected youth" in the 16-19 year old age bracket: 4.7 percent. Which still translates to 12,628 teenagers with few prospects of living a decent life in a down economy. And our official overall unemployment rate is 6.1 percent, giving us a rank of 14 out of 100 metro areas. Since the real unemployment rate is significantly higher, that's hardly much to celebrate.
In fact, none of these numbers are.
The report makes a number of recommendations to improve the teen jobs situation, which I will list here:
1) Integrate work-based learning opportunities into high school and college and expand apprenticeships.
2) Link high school to post-secondary educational credentials.
3) Provide more directed assistance to help young people find employment — especially non-college bound high school graduates — through strengthened career and technical education, career counseling, and job development/placement.
4) Expand opportunities for high school dropouts to earn a diploma or GED, coupled with access to post-secondary credentials/occupational skills training.
5) Orient career-focused education and training to the regional labor market.
6) To address weak demand for labor, create transitional subsidized jobs programs for young people to help them support themselves, develop work experience, and gain a foothold in the labor market.
7) Increase financial incentives for employment through an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, specifically targeting younger workers without children.
So in plain English, the report is calling for:
1) More internships and apprenticeships for college and high school students.
2) High school courses that offer college credit and trade certificates to give at risk youth an educational boost during the critical late teen years.
3) More career counseling.
4) More paths to a high school degree, and more access to community colleges and trade schools.
5) Matching education for at-risk youth to the job market.
6) Providing an unspecified number of government subsidized jobs.
7) Raising the maximum income that young childless workers are allowed to make to qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit. Currently a single childless worker can make no more than $14,340/year if they want to receive a small tax credit. And no more than $19,680/year if they are married and childless.
My analysis? The crisis is very real, and the report further indicates that "employment rates showed a ‘Great Age Twist’ between 2000 and 2011. Individuals under age 54 were less likely to be working in 2011 than in 2000, while those 55 and over were more likely be working in 2011."
Meaning (among other things) that older people who should be getting ready to retire, are now being forced to go back into the job market in great numbers and compete for low wage service jobs traditionally worked by teenagers. Pushing teenagers out of the job market.
The problem is that real solutions to these problems are mostly off the table in the report's recommendations.
More internships - which could very easily be unpaid - and more career counseling aren't going to do much. Expanding eligibility for the tiny Earned Income Tax Credit for young childless workers isn't going to do much either. In fact, the only recommendation that will have much effect at all will be the authors' call to create "transitional subsidized jobs programs for young people ...."
But this is a fairly timid call. And the report elaborates on it with only two brief examples that are not fleshed out in any way.
First, it mentions that the Obama Administration created "260,000 subsidized jobs" under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act following the housing crash and subsequent Great Recession.
Second, it suggests that "the models (and perhaps the existing infrastructure) provided by AmeriCorps, Youth Corps, and YouthBuild may be most appropriate for efforts focused on young people. These models and organizations have extensive experience engaging young people in intensive, time-limited community service projects while providing mentoring, stipends, and skills training."
In the first instance, far more than 260,000 subsidized jobs would be required annually to put a dent in the teen employment crisis - and about half of the ARRA jobs weren't aimed at people under 24 anyway. In the second, the programs in question are also currently far too small to handle the need, and would thus need to be vastly expanded. AmeriCorps employs 80,000 annually, Youth Corps employs 27,000, and YouthBuild enrolls 10,000.
But the report has nothing to say about such issues. And its description of the rationale for the 260,000 ARRA jobs is both disturbing and telling. It says that the program created "more than 260,000 subsidized jobs designed to reduce employers' costs and risks associated with hiring during a weak economy."
Not that the program created 260,000 jobs to help working people get through an economic crisis. It helped employers reduce their costs and risks.
That kind of thinking is part of the problem.
Real solutions will have to think about workers first and bosses second, if at all.
In this case, without getting into a long discussion about the need to rebuild America's shredded social safety net at all levels, I think that the most salient reform to deal with the problem at hand would be to reinstate a major federal program like the Youth Employment and Demonstration Projects Act of 1977 (YEDPA).
According to the US Department of Labor, "The two major new operational programs — Youth Community Conservation and Improvement Projects (YCCIP), and Youth Employment and Training Programs (YETP) — stressed the role of neighborhood and community based organizations, and encouraged the involvement of local labor organizations. The Youth Incentive Entitlement Pilot Projects (YIEPP) was the cornerstone of comprehensive and systematic experimentation to test a variety of innovative approaches to youth employment and training. The Young Adult Conservation Corps (YACC) was administered under an agreement between the Department of Labor, Agriculture and Interior, and provided disadvantaged youths with work in needed conservation projects on Federal, State and local public lands and waters.
"During Fiscal Year 1979, over 450,000 youths were enrolled in YETP and YCCIP programs; over 325,000 youths were terminated from the program, and approximately three quarters of those terminations were favorable, i.e., the enrollee entered unsubsidized employment or returned to school."
Couple that kind of jobs program with reinstating free or cheap higher education (and trade schools) for all qualified students in the United States, and we could expect to see the terrible numbers above drop to something approaching the "natural" unemployment rate in a few years.
YEDPA peaked at providing over 450,000 jobs annually in 1979. By way of comparison, approximately 117,000 jobs are created annually by the current federal youth employment programs, and 138,050 ARRA jobs that were held by young people were created through its summer job program in 2010, or a peak of about 250,000 in youth (but not just teen) jobs overall that year. It's worth mentioning that the US population - the 16-19 year old population with it - has grown significantly since 1979 when it was 225.05 million people. Today the population stands at 316.99 million. Over 91 million more people, a 40.85 percent increase. Meaning that YEDPA provided the equivalent of 633,825 jobs for young people today. In fact, additional summer jobs for youth were also created under the larger Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of 1973; so even more jobs were created by the two programs in tandem. Interestingly, according to a report on YEDPA "It has been estimated that in 1979 as much as two-fifths of all jobs held by black teenagers were in government employment and training programs."
Both programs were destroyed by the Reagan administration shortly after taking office.
Reinstating major youth jobs programs and properly funding public higher education would cost less money annually than a handful of ruinously expensive fighter jets. So this nation has the money to solve this kind of problem. But winning such reforms requires moving this country back towards a government that acts in the interest of all Americans - instead of in the interest of the various corporate lobbies. Who after all are largely the same corporate lobbies that drove our economy into the ground a few years back, and will continue to do so in the years to come unless brought to heel.
In that vein, the report's recommendation to "orient career-focused education and training to the regional labor market" is especially troubling. That's just the kind of neoliberal thinking being pushed by giant corporate-backed foundations like the Gates and Lumina foundations in Massachusetts and around the nation. Part of their goal being to convert public higher education into privatized job training centers for the dominant industries in any given region at any given time. A key problem with that approach - which I've written about before - is that we already have examples in Massachusetts about what happens when government policy is yoked to the hot industries of the moment ... those industries, as we saw with the computer hardware industry of the 1980s in the Commonwealth, can and do collapse.
When public community colleges - and even high schools now - are made to distort their traditionally broad liberal arts curriculum too far towards the narrow needs of said hot industries, then they can crash and burn when the industries in question do. Destroying the path to educational attainment and better employment prospects for many of the vulnerable young people the report is trying to help.
I seriously doubt that's the intent of the report's authors. But the ideological straightjacket that many otherwise well-meaning academic researchers strap themselves into in the quest for respectability and generous funding from capitalist foundations and think tanks like the Brookings Institution precludes their ability to offer real solutions to political economic problems facing America's working people ... even when they have been done before under a pro-business Democratic president (Carter) in the case of YEDPA - and by all kinds of Democratic and Republican state and federal administrations in the case of heavily subsidizing public higher education mid-20th century.
That is to say these aren't even socialist proposals I'm putting forward here. They are social democratic proposals of the type introduced by Democrats and Republicans alike between the 1930s and 1970s - good capitalists all. They are hardly panaceas or without fault, but they are better than what was on offer in the report in question, and well within the realm of the possible.
Yet such proposals remain off the table.
There's not much I can do to change that situation at present. Other than remind progressive unions, PTAs, youth organizations, school administrators, government officials and academic researchers that it is incumbent upon all of them to demand real solutions to serious societal problems like the youth employment crisis and the related crisis in higher education funding.
Failure to do so will result in very bad outcomes for the coming generations of young people - and more to the point, the coming generations of young people of color who suffer disproportionately from lack of work and higher educational opportunities - and for our nation.
How can a democratic society allow that to happen?
Jason Pramas is Editor/Publisher of Open Media Boston