Lightfoot’s $150 million summer jobs plan holds promise

After Lightfoot’s stalled Great Gas Card Giveaway, it could be tempting to dismiss the plan. But don’t. There’s research backing the idea as a crime-fighting strategy.

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Many Chicago Park District summer jobs are going unfilled because not enough people have applied, city officials say.

Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot lately has been proposing more million-dollar giveaways than a Publisher’s Clearinghouse sweepstakes commercial.

Get your free gas cards! Hurry, hurry and receive a loaded Ventra card (while supplies last)!

Certainly, the mayor wants to provide financial relief to a citizenry whose wallets are being rocked by the economy and high fuel prices, and that is good.

But just as evident to the low-polling mayor: She has to make big, populist moves because opponents are lining up now for next year’s mayoral election.

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Given this, it could be tempting to dismiss Lightfoot’s announcement this week of a $150 million summer jobs and education plan for the city’s youth.

But this proposal — unlike the others in Lightfoot’s Springtime Closeout — has merit.

If done right, the plan might also help to address one of the city’s most critical and intractable problems: crime.

‘Earn a little cash, increase skills’

Lightfoot says her plan involves beefing up the city’s summer jobs program for youth aged 14 to 24, raising salaries to meet Chicago’s $15-an-hour minimum wage.

That means the gigs would pay $1,800 more than last summer. An amount like that could make a difference to financially strapped households located in disinvested communities where jobs and opportunities for young folks — let alone decent-paying ones — are sorely lacking.

“Making sure that our young people are paid the minimum wage is fair,” Lightfoot said in announcing the program at Foster Park field house, 1440 W. 84th St., in Auburn Gresham.

“It’s equitable,” she said. “And it’s a big deal for them and their families.”

Lightfoot’s plan would also bring in a career coach to help workers with job skills such as showing up on time.

In addition, youth who face “special challenges” would be given priority in getting the jobs, Lightfoot said. She also promised an “aggressive outreach campaign” to reach youth and their families.

“The bottom line is this: We want our young people to literally have tens of thousands of opportunities throughout the summer, most of them paying, so they can earn a little cash, enhance their skill set and be actively engaged following their passions,” Lightfoot said.

In addition, the Summer Youth Service Corps, a separate jobs program created for 16-to-24-year-olds during the height of the pandemic, would be a year-round effort, the mayor said.

“In Little Village, they made and distributed masks. In Austin, they created a podcast to reach residents and share information about COVID,” Lightfoot said.

Study: Youth jobs can reduce crime

Chicago’s plan is similar to one announced last February by New York City Mayor Eric Adams.

“There are at least 250,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are out of school and out of work,” Adams said last January, adding that putting youth to work during the summer would be one of NYC’s crime-fighting strategies.

That’s what it’s about here in Chicago, too. Research shows the idea makes sense.

A 2014 study published in Science magazine found that violence decreased by 43% among Chicago youth enrolled in summer jobs programs.

The drop occurred over a 16-month period, the study found — meaning the positive results occurred long after the eight-week programs ended.

“The results suggest the promise of using low-cost, well-targeted programs to generate meaningful behavioral change, even with a problem as complex as youth violence,” researchers wrote.

Which is why Lightfoot, after making the announcement, has to now make sure the plan works as promised.

Perhaps the City Council that correctly stood against Lightfoot’s planned gas card and Ventra pass giveaway — her proposal to temporarily suspend a three-cent portion of the city’s gas tax — can now help hold the mayor accountable on this jobs program.

As the city heads into the warm weather months when youth-involved crime hits its traditional and terrible spike, making sure the jobs effort lives up to its claims is a high priority.

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