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By Betsy Gardner • March 10, 2020

Alicia Sasser Modestino headshot
Alicia Sasser Modestino

What if there was a program that could improve criminal justice outcomes, academic outcomes, and future employment for youth? What if it helped specifically improve economic mobility for young black men and other youth of color? Professor Alicia Sasser Modestino found that Boston’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) can do just that, highlighting the importance of data collection to prove — and improve — program effectiveness. As an Associate Professor at Northeastern University and the Associate Director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, Modestino conducted research with important policy implications, information that wouldn’t be available without a data-informed approach.

For example, the data showed that SYEPs are unusual because they are effective on all of the factors listed above. “It seems like it's filling in the gap of what they [participating youth] are seeking. This is really interesting because it makes it a much more universal program than something that you just aim at court-involved youth or high school dropouts,” said Modestino. “The baseline outcomes are very solid.” She began her research in 2015, and the universality of the benefits is backed up with data from Boston and other cities like Chicago and New York.  

In an interview with Data-Smart, Modestino details the diverse benefits that come from the program, advocates for starting SYEPs in other cities, and underlines the importance of critical data analysis. As she explained, the data “pretty quickly demonstrates that it's a net positive for cities to run this,” and she hopes that this research can help expand SYEP programs and funding around the country.     

 

Helping close the opportunity gap

In Boston, the Mayor's Office of Workforce Development has identified the summer youth employment program as a tool for reducing the city’s income inequality. Modestino is careful to point out that the data doesn’t show the SYEP as a wealth gap tool, but rather as a way to address “the opportunity gap between different individuals of varying socioeconomic status and racial and ethnic status.” So the program won’t necessarily change how much wealth a youth or their family has, but will give them a chance to participate in the labor market and build up skills that could lead to higher paying jobs and wealth acquisition. Most participants come from Boston public schools, and 70 to 80 percent of the youth that are participating are African American or Hispanic.

“This largely serves a population that has experienced a lot of disadvantages,” said Modestino “The summer youth employment program is providing employment opportunities that these youth would not otherwise have, and early work experience is shown to improve a number of different outcomes...this is providing low income inner city youth with the opportunity to have a summer employment experience that they can build on.” 

 

Young black men’s future employment

Modestino found that the merits of building upon the SYEP jobs are even greater for “older minority youth, really focused on black males ages 19 to 24.” This is especially significant because young black men ages 16 to 24 have some of the highest rates of unemployment among any age and ethnic group, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

“I think a lot of that has to do with having an employer who can vouch for you in a credible way, to get your next job. So if you're a black male who's been through the summer jobs program in Boston and you have an employer and a supervisor who's going to vouch for you, then it's much more likely that you will be employed after the program — and also see higher wages than other black males who have not participated in the summer job program,” said Modestino. 

 

Reducing crime and court involvement

Modestino’s research in Boston also found a “30 percent reduction in property crime, which right from the start can help alleviate some of the racial and socioeconomic gaps we see in terms of outcomes.” This was determined by using arraignment data, and there was a similar result in Chicago; “It's not necessarily the case that the summer job program reduces the likelihood of ever being involved in the court system. We still find similar rates of having ever been arraigned, but it reduces the number of arraignments per youth.”

Modestino was also able to look at a subgroup of youth who were already court-involved, and there were even bigger improvements for that group. The reduction of violent and property crimes was “more like a 50 percent” and there was “a significant improvement in terms of recidivism — they're much less likely to commit future crimes.” Not only does the SYEP assist with future job readiness, but it also has diversion benefits. 

 

Improving academic outcomes

Modestino has another, as yet unpublished, study from Boston that shows improvements in high school attendance. Youth from the program are less likely to be chronically absent, which is a school performance indicator from the federal Every Child Succeeds Act and is used by at least 35 states. The reduction in absenteeism led to a reduction in course failures, which led to a 5 to 6 percentage point reduction in students dropping out, and a commensurate increase in high school graduation. “Right there, moving from being a high school dropout to a high school graduate is a huge improvement in terms of employment and wages down the road, since they are highly correlated with educational attainment,” said Modestino. 

Clearly, the benefits of SYEPs are wide-ranging. What Modestino has discovered is that the program doesn’t have to be specifically tailored for different populations to gain the benefit they most need. She believes that experiential learning is the key, because it’s a “unique approach to addressing some of the deficits that inner city youth might have, not a one size fits all.” Since it fills in the individual gaps for individual participants, policy-makers should consider this program to improve several aspects of their cities. 

Modestino hopes that her research on Boston’s SYEP model will help expand these programs. In Boston, the program costs $10 million to run each year, and serves 10,000 participants ages 15-24, who work a maximum of 25 hours a week for six weeks over the summer. Boston’s SYEP is supported by a mix of city, state, and private funding. “Even if you do a basic cost benefit analysis,” said Modestino, “and you counterbalance the cost with the reduction in crime and the increased likelihood of high school graduation, it pretty quickly demonstrates that it's a net positive for cities to run this.” 

Modestino would like to see competitive funding bills, or funding that is targeted for smaller cities, to get more SYEPs running. After all, her research has proven that a summer jobs program would make a significant difference in the economic mobility of minority and low-income youth. Now it’s time to apply that data for real-world results. 

 

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