Thomas Hollister Singleton wants a car. Specifically, a Dodge Challenger, black. And while it will be several years before Singleton will be able to get behind the wheel of a vehicle he's only 14 years old he is hoping to start saving up with the money he makes this summer working in his first job: helping to clean and maintain classrooms at his school in Strayhorn, Miss. And what would he be doing otherwise? "Honestly, I'd probably just be hanging out, maybe at the beach," he says.
It's nothing new, wanting to snag a summer job, save up those pennies and get a new bike, a new Xbox 360, a new car (price tag: 1,500,000 pennies). But for many low-income teens in the U.S., like those in Tate County, where Singleton lives, jobs have been in scarce supply since the Federal Government gutted its summer-jobs program about a decade ago. But the Obama Administration is changing all that, having directed $1.2 billion to pay for summer jobs for youths. Every state is now flush with stimulus dollars ranging from about $3 million (in Wyoming, South Dakota and other low-population states) to $186 million (California) to fund local job programs. Most states have started hiring, and many kids are already in their first weeks of work. The White House estimates that the stimulus money will create 125,000 jobs for low-income youths, though outside experts put the number at up to four times that.
The money couldn't come at a better time. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment for 16-to-19-year-olds is nearly 23%; that's more than double the 9.2% national unemployment rate and the highest it's been since 1992. Why the steep rise? For starters, there's this little thing called the recession. But concern about youth employment also pretty much fell off the federal radar in recent years. Back when President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty in 1965, the Federal Government started funding summer-jobs programs for low-income youth. These efforts included the Neighborhood Youth Corps, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act and the Job Training Partnership Act. In 1999, however, federal commitment to low-income-youth employment was swallowed up by the Workforce Investment Act, which made summer jobs one of 10 priorities for certain federal dollars, as opposed to the only priority. Since then, many communities have seen opportunities dry up, especially for low-skill, low-income teens.
"In rural America, there's not many private companies that are going to hire teenagers," says Bill Renick of the Mississippi Partnership Workforce Area. "You just don't have businesses on every corner in small-town Mississippi. I've got applications from kids from Sarah a town which has maybe 200 people and summer-job opportunities just don't normally come around for them." As a result, Renick says more than 10,000 applications were submitted for what will likely turn out to be about 1,600 jobs.
Urban America is hard-pressed as well, says Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson. "For the last three years, we've scraped and scrounged just to pool together different pots of money to get children hired during the summer," says Jackson, speaking of a joint city-county effort to create summer jobs. "We've been able to do anywhere from 1,200 to 1,500 jobs a summer. But these stimulus dollars give us about 4,500 additional jobs to play with."
So what exactly will these 14-to-24-year-olds be doing over the next six to 10 weeks? "Everything," says Andrew Sum of Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies. "You'll have kids in offices, in day-care centers; some kids will be cleaning streets and parks, mowing lawns and cleaning highways." Some states will couple job time with classroom time, while others, like Indiana, plan to use their stimulus funds for green projects, such as trail maintenance and park restoration.
And while youth unemployment is high, more telling to Sum are youth employment numbers, which show that less than 1 out of every 3 teens currently has a job, the lowest number since 1948. This statistic helps explain why Sum thinks the program isn't going far enough. Sure, $1.2 billion and hundreds of thousands of jobs sound huge, but it will bring teen unemployment down only a few percentage points and only for a few months at that. If the point of a summer-jobs program is partly to train the uninitiated in the ways of the working world and partly to simply get them into the employment stream, then one can't be satisfied with just a three-month stint, he says. "Summer jobs only really pay off if we can tie them to more year-round work," says Sum. "To just have a one-summer program would be, in my mind, a massive misuse of the money. We should fund jobs this summer and next summer and have part-time work in the winter. All of it."
Mariah Hilgart is happy, however, just to have a job right now. Although she has spent some time working with her mother at a tanning salon, the 15-year-old in Park Falls, Wis., was able to secure her first "real job" through a workforce development program in the northwestern part of the state. At $7.25 an hour, 20 hours a week, Hilgart hopes that by working at the local chamber of commerce she can surprise save enough money for a car. "I like the new Pontiac G6s. They're amazing," she says. Apparently Hilgart has not heard that Pontiac is going out of business. Lesson to the feds: you can help kids earn some cash, but you can't expect them all to spend it wisely.