The Department of Labor (DOL) just lifted a national order that disallowed new enrollments in the Job Corps that had been in place since January. Pro-Corps government offices in Connecticut and Georgia are choked with confetti.
Meanwhile, critics of big government and decadent federal spending have bemoaned the Corps for decades. A 1964 Wall Street Journal piece called it an ill-fated, “defeatist approach to assume victory by enlisting still more troops in the swollen armies of Government.” The Boston Globe estimated that the "yearly cost of sending a young man" to the Job Corps "approximately doubles the cost of sending him to Harvard.”
Detractors got all that in before the thing even passed. But the squabble got really bloody once the program was around long enough for people to start deciding whether or not it worked.
In 1986, The Cato Institute said the DOL’s margin for Job Corps success was so low that they considered “teaching 17-year-olds to make change from a dollar” a “major achievement.” The Heritage Foundation later accused the DOL of withholding information suggesting “the benefits of Job Corps do not outweigh the cost of the program.”
Contrary to the fuming at Heritage, the latest scholarly accounting considers the Job Corps rickety but functional. The “program costs exceed program benefits for the full sample… [and it] appears[s] to offset costs for the oldest youth,” says a 2008 American Economic Review article. A 2012 paper found evidence of a mild “lock-in” effect. To some extent, more years in the Corps mean higher pay afterward.
And the DOL is doing its best to atone for the actuarial debauchery of past eras. Another paper says the “Job Corps has introduced a twelve-month post-placement survey in addition to a six-month survey” to monitor “performance measures and long-term earnings impacts” more closely.
Let’s assume the DOL has indeed been too lax on the Corps’ performance. After reviewing the most recent literature, I say we keep the Job Corps’ tab open anyway.
Why? It’s not perfect, but it’s also the “only large-scale education and training program that has been shown to increase the earnings of disadvantaged youth,” according to the AEA paper. Besides, the furious polemical Kung Fu it inspires from the opposition is immensely entertaining.