A Cheap Way to Reduce Youth Violence

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Teenage boy (15-17) standing behind counter, holding plate of food
Photo: Deborah Jaffe/Getty Images

Programs that help young people find summer jobs are commonly thrown-around examples of government initiatives that can, in theory, improve life for kids in dangerous, low-income neighborhoods. But there have actually been mixed results as to whether or not these programs have the beneficial effects one might expect, particularly when it comes to reducing rates of juvenile delinquency. In a new paper in Science, though, University of Pennsylvania criminologist Sara Heller offers evidence that when it comes to reducing violent crime, summer jobs programs — even relatively cheap ones — can help significantly.

Heller examined a Chicago-based program called One Summer Plus, or OSP. She tracked 1,634 8th–12th-graders, almost all of them African-American, who were “enrolled in 13 high-violence Chicago schools.” Half were assigned to OSP and half to a control group. Within the OSP group, half were offered 25 hours a week of minimum-wage work (that’s $8.25 per hour in Illinois) for eight weeks over the summer, while half were offered 15 hours of work a week paired with ten hours a week of social-emotional learning (SEL) over the same period (the sessions were designed to help them “process social information, manage thoughts and emotions, and set and achieve goals more successfully,” and participants were paid for their attendance). Everyone in the OSP group was also assigned a job mentor to help him or her ”learn to be successful employees and to navigate barriers to employment.” The control group didn’t receive any sort of counseling or employment offers.

Using police data, Heller tracked the rates at which participants in the study were arrested from the day it started until 13 months after its conclusion. She found no statistically significant differences between the OSP and control groups when it came to the rates of arrest for property, drug, and “other” crimes, but she did find a sizable drop in the rate at which OSP participants were arrested for violent crimes: Over the course of the study, they were 43 percent less likely to be arrested. It’s impossible to know from the study’s design exactly why it worked, but Heller thinks that there’s a big hint in the fact that only violent crime rates were affected: These are the sorts of crimes most tightly associated with deficits in “self-control, social information processing, and decision-making” — all skills that are likely bolstered by workplace experience. 

On its own, the reduction in crime is a pretty big finding, but when you dig into the study, some other noteworthy points jump out as well:

1. The program’s effectiveness wasn’t just due to the fact that kids were “off the streets” during working hours. Researchers call this the “incapacitation effect” — the idea that you can prevent a crime simply by putting someone in a position where he or she is too preoccupied to commit one (preoccupied in this case meaning anything from “at work” to “in jail”). In this case, Heller found that the incapacitation effect can’t explain the reduction in crime.

In fact, a statistically significant difference in violent-crime arrest rates between the OSP and control groups didn’t kick in until three months after the program ended, and the gap between the groups then proceeded to get larger for about five months before flattening out for the remainder of the study. So there’s more going on here than kids simply being too busy with other stuff to get into trouble — the study can’t definitively state what that “more” is, exactly; maybe it’s the fact that the program enlarged students’ employment network, or maybe students were impacted by the assigned mentors who regularly visited them at work, or maybe it was something else.

2. There was no difference between the group that was only given work and the group that was given work plus social-emotional learning. The two groups experienced almost the exact same drop in the rate at which they were arrested for violent crimes, suggesting the ten hours of SEL didn’t have an impact on this particular type of behavior. Heller cites the possibility that working on its own provides some of the same psychological benefits as counseling — she cited one previous study that found that individuals randomly assigned to an “earnings subsidy program to increase employment … report a greater sense of control over their lives and less anger about their lack of opportunities.” If the teenagers in this study garnered similar psychological benefits from their jobs, it might provide buffers against the sorts of influences and temptations that lead to violent crime.

The answer also may be a bit simpler, though: As Heller points out, $1,400 — the average amount the kids earned for their summer employment (or employment and counseling attendance) — is a significant sum given that they were coming from families with a median income of about $35,000. If the effects observed are caused, or mostly caused, simply by providing money to people who don’t have a lot of it — reducing kids’ incentive to get involved in crime, perhaps, or maybe freeing up parents to spend more time with kids who would otherwise go unsupervised — then the source of that money may not matter a huge amount. (If this is the case, it would would also suggest that if the kids earned more than minimum wage, we might see bigger drops in violent delinquency.)

3. This intervention provided a lot of bang for the buck. When it comes to studying these sorts of programs, the question is often, perhaps unfortunately, not just which methods produce the biggest changes in behavior, but which do so at the lowest cost. There isn’t exactly a huge amount of money floating around for programs targeting low-income teenagers in violent neighborhoods.

This study helped prove, Heller writes, that “such programs need not be hugely costly to improve outcomes for disadvantaged youth; well-targeted, low-cost employment policies can make a substantial difference, even for a problem as destructive and complex as youth violence.” Hopefully future research will provide more evidence to buttress this idea.