This blog is a part of our series, "Perspectives in Crime" where we explore leading academic studies that touch on crime data.

Youth employment programs are an increasingly popular policy intervention of local governments. Proponents of these programs highlight benefits such as improving human capital and benefitting communities at large (not just the employed youth), in addition one of the measurable benefits of these programs is their capacity to impact crime in the city. New York City has the largest program, but many other American cities maintain similar programs including Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Detroit, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.  

Effects of summer employment

Routine Activities Theory posits that crime arises at the convergence of criminal opportunity, a motivated offender, and a lack of capable guardianship. Advocates of these programs argue that early employment opportunities discourage youth crime. Summer youth employment programs are available to high school and college age youth in between academic years and provide opportunities to expand their human capital, making money in the formal economy and potentially establishing early professional connections. Program boosters anticipate that the impact on youth crime by these programs can have both short and long-term impacts, preventing crime during the summer of the program and carrying these positive outcomes into the future. 

A recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper called “The Effects of Youth Employment on Crime: Evidence from New York City Lotteries” by Judd B. Kessler, Sarah Tahamont, Alexander M. Gelber, and Adam Isen matched data from New York City’s summer youth employment program and the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services to analyze the impact these youth employment programs have on youth offenses. New York City’s summer youth employment program is the largest in the country, employing 75,000 youth in 2019. The program is so popular that they regularly receive about twice as many applicants as there are positions. The program uses a computerized lottery to randomly determine which students will be offered work through the program. All NYC youth are eligible for program participation, and an estimated 8% of eligible youth apply for the program annually. 

Collecting data and tracking outcomes

Researchers collected four years of program data and tracked outcomes, using applicants who were not selected in the lottery system as a control group. The dataset tracked 163,447 youth who applied to the program between 2005-2008 and were over 16 years old at the start of the summer.  A total of 91,908 youth won the job lottery and were employed through the program, whereas 71,539 did not win the lottery and were used as the control group. Jobs were distributed mostly among the non-profit and for-profit private sectors along with some government jobs, and youth were paid state minimum wage. The most common job type was working at a day camp or daycare center. 

Applicants came from a broad swath of local backgrounds. Using such a large sample size of youth who participated in the program, as well as a large control sample of peers who did not participate in the program, enabled the researchers to have strong confidence in their findings.  

Decline in arrests and convictions

They found strong positive results for enrollment in the summer youth employment program vis-à-vis involvement in criminal activity, including a 17% reduction in the chance of a youth being arrested during the summer program and a 23% reduction in the chance of them being arrested for a felony. These effects were stronger when viewing arrests that lead to convictions, which declined by 31% for misdemeanor convictions and 38% for felony convictions. 

Figures 1 and 2 show the impact of Summer Youth Employment Program Participation on the likelihood that a youth being arrested or convicted of a crime during the program summer. 

Figure 1:

bar graph youth employment program impact on crime

Figure 2:

bar graph youth employment program impact on crime

These results are primarily driven by the impact of arrest percentages of “at-risk” youth, which the researchers defined as having been arrested prior to participation in the program. In analysis, they found that about 3% of applicants had a preprogram arrest history. 

Short-term and long-term impact

Similar research in other cities supports these findings that program participation reduced arrests for at-risk youth. But Kessler et al. were interested in pushing this research further, investigating whether these positive impacts were short lived or produce long term changes, and whether participation in these programs only benefit “at-risk” youth or also had a positive impact on criminal outcomes for “low-risk” youth (who have no prior arrests).  

Because the study years were from the prior decade, researchers were able to look at participant outcomes for five years beyond the program summer. Though Kessler et al. did not find statistically significant results in terms of long-term arrest and conviction rates for at-risk or low-risk youths, their directional estimates did suggest that program participation decreased the likelihood of arrests and convictions for at-risk youths. Their estimation was a 10% reduction of baseline rates through five years after the program. 

Figure 3 shows the impact of program participation on the odds an at-risk program participant being arrested for a felony in the 5 years following the program summer: 

bar graph showing impact of program participation on the odds an at-risk program participant being arrested for a felony in the 5 years

The benefit to society at large

This study utilized a large diverse sample of participants in New York City’s summer youth employment program, it compared them with a large group of their peers who lost a lottery to participate in the program. Syncing data with the state of New York’s criminal justice system, they tracked individual outcomes regarding the likelihood of being arrested and/or convicted of a crime both during the program summer as well as for the next five years. Researchers found a strong effect of program participation reducing the likelihood of involvement with the criminal justice system during the program summer. This effect was primarily observed in youth already in contact with the legal system. Though less statistically significant, this effect carried forward over the next years, again, primarily with at-risk youth.  

These findings support routine activity interpretations of summer youth employment program’s benefits to society, particularly in the short-term where participation in the formal labor market enfranchises youth and attenuates involvement in illegal behaviors. These results boost the arguments by proponents for summer youth employment programs and show that targeting at-risk youth with these programs can be beneficial to society at large.  

Published June 13, 2022

Source:

Judd B. Kessler, Sarah Tahamont, Alexander M. Gelber, and Adam Isen. The Effects of Youth Employment on Crime: Evidence from New York City Lotteries. NBER Working Paper No. 28373 January 2021