Last year, the District’s Summer Youth Employment Program turned into a scandal. A cost overrun of about $40.5 million over the original budget. At least 3,000 people receiving paychecks who were ineligible to participate, had been fired or never shown up in the first place. And that’s only part of it.
As Mayor Fenty acknowledged, the program hadn’t been “managed or administered the way the residents of the District of Columbia expect.” (Classic understatement!) As he didn’t acknowledge, program staff were overwhelmed because he decided to eliminate both the registration deadline and the cap on enrollment.
For this summer’s program, the City Council appropriated $23 million and specified an enrollment of no more than 21,000 youth. The Mayor apparently didn’t take this seriously. On May 1, he triumphantly announced that nearly 24,000 youth had registered. The budget apparently wouldn’t have covered even the mandated maximum because program costs are now estimated at $45 million.
So the Mayor wants permission to tap the National Stadium Community Fund. As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute says, the fund was intended to cover important unmet community needs, not over-extended programs.
A majority of the City Council voted instead to cut the program from ten weeks to six–the length it was before the Mayor extended it. However, more than a majority (nine votes) was required to make the change immediately effective.
So here we are at the beginning of summer with many more young people expecting to work than there’s money to pay for.
This is more than a symptom of the tensions between the Mayor and the City Council. And more than a question of how to manage a cost overrun in this tough budget year.
Experts doubt that the SYEP can ensure a successful experience for anything like the number enrolled. In a posting on the Mayor’s proposed budget, Martha Ross of the Brookings Institution estimated the maximum at fewer than 15,000.
Ross and several other experts have joined in an open letter to the City Council that puts the issue in a nutshell: “The goal of providing income and something to do during the summer months for as many youth as possible appears to have supplanted the goal of developing a meaningful, high-quality youth employment program.”
They recommend that the District operate this year’s program within budget and run a smaller, perhaps shorter program in 2010 so that the Department of Employment Services can focus on changes that will provide participants with meaningful preparation for the world of work.
They also recommend enhancements to the city’s year-round workforce development program, with a focus on “disconnected youth,” i.e., young people who are out of school and out of work. Funds for this would be available if, as Ross urges, the District focused its youth employment efforts on quality, not quantity.
What’s so troubling about this is that it’s all old news–the issues, the recommendations, the commitments to improvements. And meanwhile young people, especially those from low-income families, are being shortchanged by a program we’re being asked to throw more money at.