January 18, 2015

The best crime fighter may well be a job

I'm not sure whether this is lazy or efficient or both, but here's the text of an op-ed I wrote in today's Charleston Gazette about how a short term jobs program led to a longer term drop in crime:

I am not generally on the same page as former vice president Dick Cheney, but he might have been onto something when he said “The best anti-poverty program I know is a job.”

Some recent research indicates that a job might just be the best way to stop a bullet as well.

Here’s the story: A while back, the city of Chicago started an eight week summer jobs program for high school age students in high crime, low income neighborhoods. The jobs paid $8.25 an hour and generally involved placement in a public agency or non-profit where participants might be camp counselors, tend community gardens or work as office assistants.

The program was scientifically evaluated by Sara Heller with the University of Chicago Crime Lab and the University of Pennsylvania and published in the journal Science.

For the study, participants were placed randomly in three groups. One group worked 25 hours per week. Another worked 15 hours and received an additional 10 hours in learning about managing social and emotional issues. A third control group didn’t participate in the program but was free to pursue or not pursue other locally available opportunities.

The results were striking. While there wasn’t a great deal of difference between the first two groups, arrests for violent crimes decreased by 43 percent over 16 months compared with the control group. That’s pretty huge.

It’s especially interesting that the effects continued long after the eight weeks of employment were over.

Lots of things could have been involved here in the crime drop. More money is an obvious factor, as is less time to get in trouble. More household income might have allowed parents to reduce their work hours and be more involved with the young people.

It’s a little harder to account for the long-term effects, although the Washington Post’s Wonkblog suggests that “students who had access to jobs may have then found crime a less attractive alternative to work. Or perhaps their time on the job taught them how the labor market values education. Or maybe the work experience may have given them skills that enabled them to be more successful -- and less prone to getting in trouble -- back in school.”

As Jeff Mervis wrote in the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s website, the study shows you can have “lasting effects from a surprisingly simple and low-cost intervention: a summer job.” It should go without saying that solutions like this are way better -- and cheaper -- than locking people up.

These kinds of programs have long been advocated for communities like Charleston’s West Side by community leaders such as my friend the Rev. Matthew Watts and others.

Unfortunately, as the University of Chicago reports, youth employment in the summer months is near a 60-year low and there were many more young people to apply for the Chicago program than can be accepted.

One would hope that solid evidence like this would build support for more programs like this to provide real opportunities for people in disadvantaged communities.

And while West Virginia has a different set of problems than Chicago, we do have the lowest workforce participation rate in the nation, a fact that drags down all our other statistics. The rate is particularly low for young workers aged 16-24, which dropped from 56.6 percent in 2008 to 47.9 percent in 2013. It stands to reason that young people who are neither working nor pursuing educational opportunities are more likely to get in trouble.

State leaders should take another look the issue and develop programs, including subsidized employment, to increase participation rates, particularly among at-risk individuals, with a long range goal of working towards full employment.

And, since state leaders have spent the better part of a year pondering juvenile justice reform, they might do well to consider trying pilot youth employment programs. It makes a lot more sense than paying over $100,000 per year to lock up a kid who isn’t a threat to public safety.

It’s another example of the old saying about an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure.

1 comment:

Susan J. said...

thanks, Rick -

this is especially relevant when read alongside another article in the same day's Sunday paper, which I can figure out how to read online but not how to post the link >> sigh <<


"Half of V.Va. workforce unemployed / Age, poor health, low education key factors in nation-leading rate"

Susan J.