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Federal Make-Work Jobs Betray Teenagers

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Politicians now pretend that government spending can solve any and all ills. Sloshing out federal funds for local summer job programs exemplifies this delusion.

Uncle Sam first began bank-rolling summer jobs for urban teens in 1964. It was decided that government should hire any low-income teen who couldn’t find a job on his own. Soon, with the usual bureaucratic imperialism, local governments were vigorously dissuading teens from even looking for private jobs, begging them to come learn to be a “government worker.”

The programs quickly became a disaster, even by the standards of the Great Society. In the subsequent decades, they warped the work ethic of hundreds of thousands of youths. The General Accounting Office (GAO) concluded in 1969 that some teen participants “regressed in their conception of what should reasonably be required in return for wages paid.” Ten years later, the GAO found that “almost three of every four [urban teen summer-job] enrollees 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.” William Raspberry, a black columnist for the Washington Post, complained in the late 1970s, “We are raising a generation of kids who don’t know the meaning of work.” Raspberry blamed government summer job programs, among other culprits.

Many of the teens realized that they were learning no skills and became bitter. A National Academy of Sciences 1985 report found “mutually negative attitudes by [summer job program] participants and program personnel toward each other.” Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.) complained in 1979 that youths in summer job programs “get such a strong message of cynicism and corruption that it cannot fail to carry over into their attitudes about work, crime, and society.”

Washington, D.C.

In 1989, I visited several Washington, D.C., summer youth job-training sites funded by the feds. Washington, D.C., had one of the largest summer job programs, doling out checks to more than 16,000 teens. Mayor Marion Barry declared, “There are no ‘busy work’ job assignments. All of the jobs are productive, and will benefit our youth by providing them with marketable skills and enduring personal values.”

I interviewed Larry Brown, the agency’s public-affairs director, and asked how the program reacted when some kids refused to work. Brown said, “We don’t fire any of the kids — it just doesn’t do anything to help a 14- or 15-year-old.” Youths who refused to do any work at one job site were simply transferred to another job site. This is the same management trick that the federal government uses for unproductive file clerks — transferring them to some other agency.

One of the largest programs was the Marion Barry Youth Leadership Institute, which “served” 590 teenagers. I visited the program’s site at American University in Northwest D.C. one July morning and found youths having a rowdy talk over whether “women are not interested in sex” and whether “men want women to be submissive.” I asked the fashionably dressed program director what the kids were learning, and she proudly replied, “Conversational skills.” But the session — which consisted of three circles of youths in the same room — was nearly pure chaos. Many of them were shouting, jumping up, throwing paperclips, and punching and stroking each other; few were paying attention to the group leader. In the afternoon, they were paid to work at volleyball, swimming, and basketball.

The Institute was closely linked to the mayor and helped mobilize youths to support him. The Institute regularly held election-eve rallies to encourage young people and their parents to vote. The U.S. Department of Labor had no trouble with bankrolling such an organization, even though the Barry administration was already widely suspected of corruption and abuses.

Job skills

Congress sharply curtailed federal subsidies for teen summer jobs in the late 1990s, but President Obama revived the program. Last year, the feds doled out $1.2 billion to put 125,000 teens and young adults on payrolls. The jobs paid up to $10 an hour — often more than a kid could earn working a real, private job. The vast majority of kids were placed at government agencies or nonprofit organizations.

National Urban League chief Marc Morial declared, “If we want urban kids to value work, we have to give them work.” But federally funded summer “jobs” are often the antithesis of work. Instead of real jobs, kids are provided with situations that “emphasize real-world labor expectations,” as New York City describes its summer job program. In many areas, kids were paid to sit in summer-school classes.

In Boston, summer job workers donned puppets to greet visitors to an aquarium. In Memphis, Cincinnati, and elsewhere, youths painted murals (not one of the occupations forecast for rapid growth in the coming decade).

In Washington, D.C., 800 teens were enrolled in the Green Summer Job Corps, wearing T-shirts trumpeting the name of Mayor Adrian Fenty. Among the Corps’s projects: “maintenance of school-yard butterfly habitats” and “community outreach on environmental issues.” This last item got off to a rocky start after Corps members deluged the streets and sidewalks of D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood with leaflets touting the program.

Politicians claim that the jobs program gives kids lessons that will change their lives. The Tulare County, California, summer job program provides kids with “workshops on safety, ethics and life skills,” as well as “referrals to the Armed Services.”

At a central Florida event, summer-job participants “practiced firm handshakes to ensure that employers quickly understand their serious intent to work,” the Orlando Sentinel reported. The highlight of the job-preparation “summit” was “Marvelless Mark — Opportunity Rocks.” According to Workforce Central Florida, Marvelless Mark’s presentation “is based on this simple premise — the qualities successful rock stars have are also found in every successful worker.” (The press release did not mention anything about groupies.)

Programs pretend to teach kids the moon — in the blink of an eye. In San Diego, youths in the program “must complete an eight-hour work readiness training session that covers resume writing, a vocational skills assessment and tips on how to find and maintain a job.” The odds that all these tasks will be competently covered in eight hours is akin to the likelihood of finding an honest politician.

Mayors and members of Congress are ubiquitous in photo opportunities for summer job programs. But the programs are usually gauged simply by raw numbers, by how many kids get a job. D.C, council member Michael Brown requested two summer-job participants to work in his office but was sent ten. He suggested at a public hearing that the program might be “child dumping” to boost the number of kids enrolled.

The key thing a kid must learn from his first job is to produce enough value that someone will voluntarily pay him a wage. But the goal for summer job programs is often simply to make kids feel good about themselves. Social workers coddle kids and then assure them that the experience was “similar” to a job. But dealing with one or two “bosses from hell” as a teenager can be an excellent preparation for real life. Vice President Mondale’s Task Force on Youth Unemployment reported in 1980, “Private employment experience is deemed far more attractive to prospective employers than public work.”

Program failure

Politicians brag that government-funded summer jobs help kids get a foot into the labor market. However, the hiring criteria for last year’s program could be a scarlet letter for youths later seeking real, private jobs. In many locales, applicants were required to be from low-income families and also have a “significant barrier to employment, such as a deficiency in basic literacy skills or being a school dropout, homeless, pregnant, a criminal offender or disabled.” Young people who worked hard and kept straight were discouraged, so that subsidized “jobs” would go to troublemakers.

Ironically, “preventing crime” is often the ultimate defense for government spending for summer jobs. However, urban crime rates soared after the programs began in the mid to late 1960s. The National Academy of Sciences reported in 1985 that the summer job program failed to reduce the crime rate among participants. One D.C. council member was embarrassed last year when a summer teen assigned to his office made headlines. After sitting through a session on a D.C. Council report on gang violence, the young guy went out and shot someone from a rival gang. Besides, making kids feel entitled to a bribe for not committing crimes makes a mockery of the program’s lofty pretensions. (Also, there is the minor problem that taxpayers got robbed for such nonsensical programs.)

The federal government has run more than a hundred different job-training programs since the 1960s but has consistently betrayed people who trusted Uncle Sam to give them marketable skills. An Urban Institute study concluded that, from 1974 to 1983, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) produced “significant earnings losses for young men of all races and no significant effects for young women.” A 1992 Labor Department study concluded that federal training “actually reduced the earnings of male out-of-school youths.”

There is no reason to assume that the revived summer job programs will be less harmful than previous federal jobs programs. “Make work” and “fake work” are a grave disservice to young people. American teenagers should not be sacrificed on an altar of political photo opportunities.

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    James Bovard serves as policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.