A summer job can do a lot, but it’s no guarantee to keep guns off the streets
The heralded Marion Barry Summer employment program gives jobs to young D.C. kids, but it falls short as an answer to the rising gun violence
As the rate of gun violence rises in the District, local leaders have encouraged their community to work towards protecting and educating youth. Mayor Muriel Bowser took youth employment seriously early this year. She introduced the Mayor’s Opportunity Scholarship which allows 25 summer youth employment participants ages 18 to 24 to earn a scholarship for postsecondary education. In 2019, she stood as the spokeswoman for the Mayor Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Program or MBSYEP. In January of this year, Mayor Bowser announced that applications would be accessible for youth ages 14 to 24 and that hourly wages would be raised for participants.
For over 40 years, the Mayor Marion S. Barry Summer Employment Program has served D.C. youth through short-term employment and training. It honors Mayor Barry’s pursuit of career development for youth and has gained traction throughout the country. Today, there are hundreds of similar programs following in its footsteps to keep disadvantaged youth out of trouble during the summer.
New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program, for example, has been widely successful, offering 100,000 employment opportunities this year. MBSYEP continues to stand as the largest summer youth employment program per capita in the country and is a trailblazer for other cities. Cities are lowering the risk of exposure to, or participation in, violence, yet the scope of the program cannot tackle youth gun violence independently.
For Capitol youth, the Mayor Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Program has been praised as an opportunity to earn a salary and gain purposeful, hands-on experience in the workforce. Figures published by the mayor’s office show that in the past ten-years, over 10,000 youth have participated in MBSYEP each year.
One past participant, Khat Patrong, said that her past summers went by faster and with more purpose. “I walked away with a sense of work ethic, and trained me as a young person to be courteous and listen to authority,” said Khat, who was a participant for three years . MBSYEP was pivotal for her career path, as it has been for hundreds of past participants. After producing a commercial for a local performing arts high school, Khat later worked in film.
For D.C., it has been seen as a pipeline for disadvantaged youth in the District to engage in their community and break cycles of crime and poverty. 56% of its participants are residents of Wards 7 and 8. In terms of employment outcomes, MBSYEP has been widely successful. In 2016, nearly 50 percent of participants secured employment by the end of the year. In a 2020 Independent Evaluation by the Department of Employment Services, youth participants reported to be overwhelmingly satisfied by the experience, over 40% saying that they were happy with their pay rate and with their employer. Yet, the program has not been shown to curve the rising issue of youth gun violence.
It was estimated that the cost per participant was over $2000. In a landscape analysis of D.C. by the National Institute of Criminal Justice Reform, the District was reported to have a number of programs and strategies to combat gun violence. Yet, said programs and strategies were seen as “uncoordinated and disjointed.” Muhammed and the National Institute of Criminal Justice Reform found in a number of reports that D.C. was seen as “resource rich, coordination poor,” yet was slowly working towards serving every ward effectively.
Over the past four years, rates of gun violence with youth victims or aggressors has doubled in America. For children ages 1 to 18, gun violence has surpassed car accidents and illnesses as the leading cause of death. This rise is tangible in D.C., with over 50 children shot in 2023 as of August, surpassing last year’s record. The growing population of juveniles shot, killed and arrested for gun violence has deeply affected communities within the Capitol. The violence has left city leaders desperate to find a way to curve this rate; few have turned to summer employment.
When Marion Barry founded MBSYEP in his first term as the District’s mayor in 1979, he saw the program as an opportunity to support youths transitioning from school to a career. For all youth in America, employment fosters independence and responsibility, which can later support them in their career and other long-term endeavors. The Journal of Public Health Management published that teenage work experience leads to development, adding to resume building and leading to higher-paying careers.
In appropriate jobs, youth get the opportunity to develop confidence in their abilities. Leah Frerichs said in her research that often underprivileged youth are forgotten in employment and internship opportunities. MBSYEP gives this overlooked population a chance to gain valuable work experience. The program works with 11 D.C. high schools – Eastern, H.D. Woodson, Anacostia, Ballou, Cesar Chavez, Columbia Heights, Roosevelt, Cardozo, Ron Brown, Dunbar and McKinley Tech– to reach disadvantaged youth.
Though there are obvious benefits to the program for participants learning workforce skills, there has been no concrete proof that summer youth employment is the answer to rising gun violence as many local leaders claim.
David Muhammed, Executive Director of the National Institute of Criminal Justice Reform, fears that summer youth employment gets a bad rep because of this. “If you’re saying that the answer to youth gun violence is summer youth employment, you are incorrect,” Muhammed said.
“Summer youth employment is violence prevention, not an alternative to public policy or legislation.” Muhammed believes that MBSYEP has given hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged youth rewarding opportunities, which deserves to be celebrated, but this by itself will not put an end to youth gun violence.
MBSYEP aims to develop youth through employment and shadowing of professionals. Given that it has over 10,000 participants yearly, it is difficult to track their long-term outcomes. However, according to MBSYEP, the program is keeping the youth out of trouble and financing their spending. In a 2020 MBSYEP Report, up to 13.3% past participants come back the following summer, with over 9,939 participants working at least an hour; that’s an hour where these youth are off of the streets and are supervised by D.C. professionals.
Though MBSYEP gives a range of opportunities, in terms of hours worked and in job sectors, participants are less likely to partake in gun violence when they are earning a wage. In the country, MBSYEP is the first program to give youth a wage. With youth earning up to $17 per hour, local businesses have reported a boost in their economy. In 2019, there was a gross payroll of over $9 million, 21.9% of which was for food and transportation. Participating youth additionally reported that a percentage of their earned wages were allocated for secondary education funds and for their parents or family.
Despite these benchmarks, there is frustration over the summer program and doubts of whether it is cost-effective for the District. Over the years, the budget for the program has doubled. This year, the Department of Employment Services allocated $21 million to the program, though there has not been any public record of how the fund is being budgeted or how participants get paid. The MBSYEP Office declined to comment on this.
When speaking with Khat, she believed that the cost was appropriate for MBSYEP. In High School, Khat was homeless. She shared that without MBSYEP, she would not have been able to support her and her mother. One cannot put a price when it comes to the service and hands-on experience. “It keeps peers my age busy as well. When you’re idle and don’t have any activity to do, you can get in trouble” she said.
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