Figuring the Damage Done by Detached Elites? Add Youth Unemployment to the List

By Jerry Kammer on July 30, 2013

A story on Monday night's "PBS News Hour" reported on an effort in Boston to confront the crisis of youth unemployment. Despite that effort, said correspondent Paul Solman, there are many fewer jobs available in Boston today than there were in the late 1990s.

Solman described the dimensions of the problem, reporting that 12 million Americans in the 16-19 age cohort are unemployed. One of his interviewees said American employers need to be mobilized to hire young workers for whom job experience is a vital part of preparation for adulthood.

The story did not note the fact that the State Department is encouraging American employers to hire foreign college students who come here seasonally with J-1 visas as part of the Summer Work Travel (SWT) program. Tax breaks mean that these workers cost employers about 8 percent less than the cost of hiring American workers.

Now, it's true that the 100,000 annual SWT workers represent a small part of a national problem. But in areas of high SWT concentration — including Massachusetts and most states along the east coast — they represent a major part a regional problem.

According to State Department statistics, this year there are 5,556 SWT workers in Massachusetts, 5,332 in Maine, 7,938 in New York, 5,914 in New Jersey, 5,855 in Maryland, 5,279 in Virginia, 2,664 in North Carolina, and 5,489 in Florida.

It's also true that the SWT industry, working in concert with State Department headquarters and U.S. embassies around the world, has been pushing to expand the program.

The SWT program has thrived because of the State Department's fondness for "visa diplomacy" and because the program generates tens of millions of dollars in profits for employers and for the "sponsor" agencies that work with foreign partners to recruit foreign college students. The students, eager for the opportunity to see the United States and earn the minimum wage, pay the agencies an average of $1,100 in fees.

It's all part of the grand monetization of what the State Department quaintly labels a program of cultural exchange. We described it in our report entitled "Cheap Labor as Cultural Exchange".

How bitterly ironic it is that while young people in Boston go without work, the SWT program spends millions to recruit young people from around the world to work in Boston, Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket.

One of Solman's interviewees spoke eloquently about the importance of a job in a young person's education: "It's not just about reading and writing and mathematics in terms of being a productive employee, a professional, a manager. It's about a set of skills that we learn experientially. We learn them in the work place. So if half as many teenagers in America are getting those experiences, it's going to have a profound impact on the workforce that's transitioning to adulthood."

State Department, are you listening? Have you gotten president's message about jobs, jobs, jobs? I'm willing to bet he was talking about jobs for Americans. It's time for the detached elites to re-attach themselves to the realities of life in the home country.