Bowling Alone and SWT Employers

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on March 7, 2012

This morning I received an email that made me think of Bowling Alone, the classic book by Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam about the collapse of community and civic engagement in the United States.

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The e-mail came from a Maryland resident who has written to several elected representatives to express concerns about the State Department's Summer Work Travel (SWT) program. Every year SWT brings more than 100,000 foreign college students to the United States for seasonal jobs, even as unemployment among young Americans stands at record levels.

The e-mail reported briefly on a conversation with a member of the City Council in Ocean City, Md., one of the locales most active in hiring SWT students. "She thinks it's great," my correspondent wrote.

As I wrote back, such employer enthusiasm is not surprising. The reasons are discussed at length in our series of investigative reports titled "Cheap Labor as Cultural Exchange", which we will discuss in a panel on Tuesday, March 13, at the National Press Club.

SWT is an employer's dream, especially if the employer is not concerned about the social implications of using SWT to outsource their summer workforce. It provides them a large supply of low-wage workers who are willing to work all the hours they can get and are often afraid to complain about bad working conditions. Plus, the State Department-approved sponsoring organizations, which every year collect more than $100 million in fees from SWT workers, do all the recruiting, relieving employers of that task.

As TV pitchmen like to add, "But wait, there's more!" If employers hire a certain number of workers, they get free trips to Europe, Asia, or South America. Plus the program provides tax incentives for employers to hire J-1 kids instead of American kids. Plus the sponsors have a lobbying organization that advocates for the program at State and in Congress, making the SWT worker supply safe for American employers. Plus, the State Department assures employers that it's all in the name of "cultural exchange" with foreign countries.

So it is very easy for employers to become "hooked" on J-1 kids and habituated to hiring them. But what is the civic cost to us as a society when our own government pushes a program that displaces American young people from the worksite? Do employers have any civic obligations? Do they have a duty to help prepare the next generation of American citizens? Or is their only duty to their own bottom line?

Putnam offered six measures of social capital in American society: volunteer work and philanthropy, political participation, civic participation, religious participation, workplace connections, and informal social connections. I propose a seventh metric: the commitment of American employers to hiring young Americans and resisting the temptations dangled before them by the State Department and the SWT sponsors.

I am sure President Obama would approve. After all, as he said in this year's State of the Union Address, "It's time to stop rewarding businesses that ship jobs overseas, and start rewarding companies that create jobs right here in America." I am quite sure that the president wasn't talking about creating jobs right here for workers from overseas.

One of our speakers on Tuesday will be an American employer who hires young Americans for seasonal work. He will talk about his philosophy of civic responsibility. And he will explain why SWT makes it nearly impossible for him to compete with SWT employers.