More Light And A Lot More Heat On DC Summer Youth Employment Program

Monday’s hearing on the District’s troublesome Summer Youth Employment Program lasted more than eight hours. Many witnesses — most of them SYEP participants who, I gather, had been rounded up and possibly coached. Also invited government witnesses and some top-flight advocates for homeless and other poor D.C. residents.

Many pleas for the requested seven-day extension — a chance to earn more, learn more and have something to do besides hang out on the streets and get into trouble.

Cogent opposition from the Brookings Institution’s Martha Ross and the advocates, whose principal concern was the diversion of funds from homeless services, cash assistance and better job training for TANF participants and a swifter, more accurate case management system.

A blast from the DC auditor on the administration’s chronic practice of ignoring SYEP budget constraints. “Irresponsible … a threat to other vital District programs and the District’s fiscal stability.” Violations of the federal and District anti-deficiency laws, which, among other things, prohibit agencies from authorizing spending in excess of approved budgets.

An account of the run-up to this year’s raid on the TANF Emergency Contingency Fund from the Associate Chief Financial Officer. A raking over the coals for keeping the Council in the dark.

A strong defense of the SYEP from Joe Walsh, Director of Employment Services. The largest program in two decades. The largest in the country, in fact. Most participants from the three wards with the highest unemployment rates. About 30% of them from families who receive public assistance. The usual enumeration of benefits to participants. Diverse administrative improvements.

Considerable distress and frustration on the part of Councilmembers, who rightly felt jammed by the last-minute extension request and, more importantly, the administration’s utter disregard for the budget process.

Seems they thought the $22.7 million appropriated for the SYEP was what the administration was supposed to spend, not a minimum that could be freely augmented from other accounts without so much as a heads-up to the oversight committee.

Seems that Councilmember Tommy Wells, Chairman of the Human Services Committee, believed that the Department of Human Services would spend the TANF Emergency Contingency funds according to the allocations submitted during this year’s budget deliberations. Blindsided by the department’s transfer of $8.4 million to DOES.

But there really wasn’t much the committee could do — or the full Council either. Back in May, DOES had met with CFO staff about the costs of a program enrolling 21,000 participants for seven and a half weeks, rather than the authorized six. CFO staff told DOES it had funds for at most four weeks of wages. DOES then identified the TANF funds as the way to close the gap.

It assured CFO staff that the Emergency Contingency funds could be used because 80% of participants had addresses indicating they were eligible for TANF. Apparently no one in the CFO’s office questioned this dubious methodology.

So now SYEP participants are owed about two weeks of wages that can only be paid by tapping a source outside the approved budget. And since the Council found out about this only days ago, it hardly had time to go back through the budget and find another way to cover the overrun.

But it did what it could. It soundly defeated the proposed extension. This reportedly leaves $4.3 million in TANF funds that ought to go back to DHS.

It also leaves some big issues on the table. Where will DHS find the additional funds to provide shelter or other housing for the District’s many homeless families? Will it use any of the funds passed back to provide emergency relief to the families who’ve got no place to stay? What will happen with its TANF job training and other initiatives?

And what can the Council do to ensure that whoever directs the SYEP doesn’t again commit to a larger, longer program than the budget can cover?

5 Responses to More Light And A Lot More Heat On DC Summer Youth Employment Program

  1. Anita Amero says:

    I don’t want to take away from TANF families that are already struggling, but if the SYEP income is coming into a TANF family household…is that income considered part of each family’s benefits? Fenty can’t have it both ways. I remember having a PT job at Pizza Hut in 1993; Medicaid, food stamps and TANF check cut off, because I earned $2 above the income threshold. No consideration was given to the child care expenses that I paid out of that $332 per month.

    I’m sure that times have changed, but I doubt that the rules have changed such that ANY income (even monetary gifts from family) is supposed to be considered under TANF eligibility rules. So, back to my original point…if 30% of the SYEP workers were in TANF households, the temporary increases in household income are supposed to be balanced by temporary decreases in TANF payments. It sounds harsh, I know, but the system (as it is and has been) is set up to punish its most vulnerable stakeholders for attempting to improve their quality of life; equity is not always fair.

  2. Kathryn Baer says:

    You’re asking a good question, Anita. And I don’t know the answer. Do, however, want to clarify what Director Walsh meant by government assistance. It wasn’t only TANF. Households receiving food stamps and/or SSI were also included in the 30%.

    The distinction is important because the use of TANF funds to cover the wages of SYEP participants wasn’t just a different way of using the funds to benefit the same population. Any youth, regardless of income, can participate in the District’s SYEP.

  3. Anita Amero says:

    I know that as long as one meets the age, residency, and documentation requirements, one can APPLY to participate, regardless of income. However, the income reporting requirements for TANF (and SSI and food stamps, you’re right) include income sources for ALL household members; therefore, when one source of money increases (wages), another source of money decreases (TANF payment).

    Is it possible that Fenty was hedging his bets for September by raiding the TANF budget line item for housing to ingratiate himself with another group of DC residents who have an address of their own (read eligible to vote)?

  4. Kathryn Baer says:

    Undoubtedly, there was a political calculation here. As I’ve written before, the Summer Youth Employment Program is a proven political winner. Has been ever since former-Mayor Barry started it. And people in the District have come to expect a big program. Cutting the program back to what the budget would cover would have disappointed a lot of parents and voting-age prospective participants too.

  5. Anita Amero says:

    You’re right. Some SYEP participants surely fell on the 18-21 year old side of the Bell curve, didn’t they? And those fortunate few owe their summer income to Fenty.

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