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

August 5, 2010

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?


Fenty Raids TANF Funds To Shore Up Summer Youth Jobs Budget

August 1, 2010

Once again, the District’s Summer Youth Employment Program faces a budget shortfall. And, once again, Mayor Fenty has decided that the program shouldn’t have to adhere to the funding level set by the DC Council.

Two years ago, the administration spent about $40.5 million more than was originally budgeted. Last year, another cost overrun. And here we go again, but with a new twist.

The approved budget for this summer’s program is $22.7 million. The Council limited enrollment to 21,000 youth and capped the length at six weeks. The Department of Employment Services, which administers the program, has reportedly kept enrollment below the cap.

But, as the Washington Post reports, the Chief Financial Officer determined that the approved funding wouldn’t cover six full weeks of wages — perhaps because $10 million had to be spent on contractors to place as many youth as the Council was willing to allow. Not only that, but as DOES Director Joe Walsh testified last month, the administration wanted to extend the program to somewhat more than seven weeks.

So it was clearly in a bind. DOES could, of course, have cut back enrollment to eliminate the projected shortfall. It could have reduced participants’ work hours. The mayor could have gone back to the Council with a request for the additional funds needed to run the program he wanted.

Instead, he decided to reprogram $8.4 million that Clarence Carter, head of the Department of Human Services, had assured the Council would be used to bring total funding for homeless services up to the Fiscal Year 2009 level. Either that or the mayor is taking funds that are urgently needed to serve the very low-income families in the District’s TANF program.

At this point, we don’t know, though we may find out at a hearing the Housing and Workforce Development Committee has scheduled for tomorrow morning. But the mayor may think he doesn’t need to account for the supplement to the SYEP appropriation because, technically, the additional funds aren’t in the District’s budget.

They come from the District’s share of the TANF Emergency Contingency Fund — a pot of money Congress appropriated as part of the economic recovery act to help states cope with recession-related spending increases for TANF and/or short-term benefits to help families who would otherwise enroll in TANF.

The District had claimed $46 million. These funds weren’t in the proposed Fiscal Year 2011 budget because the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services hadn’t approved payment. Carter told the Council he was quite sure it would. And he was obviously right.

But because the funds weren’t in the budget, the mayor apparently feels free to use them for any of the broad purposes the Emergency Contingency Fund can cover, prior commitments and pressing needs notwithstanding.

An internal document prepared in April shows that DHS planned to use $8.1 million of the Emergency Contingency funds to make up the Fiscal Year 2010 homeless services shortfall and $15 million for the projected shortfall in Fiscal Year 2011. The remainder was to go to the TANF program itself — $7.9 million for cash assistance and the rest for improved job training and other initiatives.

The mayor claims that what he’s doing is altogether appropriate. “The Obama administration,” he says, “has made it a priority to use federal stimulus funds to put young people to work this summer.”

Perhaps he’s referring to the $1.2 billion that were in the economic recovery act for youth employment and training programs. Perhaps to the additional $1 billion that’s still pending in Congress.

What’s sure as can be is that neither the President nor any of his people ever suggested leaving homeless families out on the streets so that some kids can have summer-long subsidized jobs that could have gone to poor jobless parents.

UPDATE: At yesterday’s hearing, DOES Director Joe Walsh clarified the mayor’s reference to the Obama administration’s priority on subsidized summer jobs for youth. Several months ago, he said, the U.S. Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services sent a letter to state agencies encouraging them to address the high rate of youth unemployment.

They were encouraged to explore all funds available and provided guidance on how TANF funds could be used. The departments asked as many as possible to take advantage of potentials for partnering their Work Investment Act and TANF programs.

According to this account, the departments said nothing to suggest that summer jobs for youth should have a higher priority than providing shelter and other essential services for very low-income families, including meaningful job training for the parents.


DC Summer Youth Employment Program Off To Rocky Start

June 30, 2010

Guess I should have waited for the opening day news before publishing my rose-colored glasses view of the prospects for this year’s summer jobs program.

The Washington Post and other news sources, including WUSA9.com, myfoxdc.com and Channel 8 News all report major problems with assignments.

Seems that some youth were sent to job sites that already had more workers than they could handle. Some were sent to a site where there were no jobs because the company didn’t have a contract with the Department of Employment Services.

Then there were some who needed transfers for health or safety reasons, e.g., a participant with asthma who was assigned to work at a public (chlorinated) swimming pool. At least one teen was assigned to summer school when she wasn’t supposed to go.

All told, somewhere between 700 and more than 800 youth wound up at Gallaudet University’s field house to get new assignments. Some reportedly stood in line for hours. Some were ultimately told to call at 6:00 a.m. the following day to find out what, if anything, the program had lined up for them.

One could expect some glitches in a program as large as the District’s. And some of the youth seeking reassignments simply wanted something closer to home — reasonable, but not necessarily something the program should be expected to deliver.

But no-matches and mismatches involving so many young people?

Joe Walsh, head of DOES, says that the program “is running 100 percent better than last year and 1,000 percent smoother than any years previous.” That well may be, given past administrative foul-ups.

To Walsh’s credit, some 20,000 youth were, as he says, “out there working all over the city.” And he recognizes there are still problems to resolve.

Mayor Fenty dismisses allegations of confusion. “There are over 22,000 kids in the program, he e-mailed Fox 5. “Some kids are being transferred to different assignments and other kinks may be getting ironed out. What’s the chaos?”

What’s this about over 22,000 kids? I thought the DC Council capped the program at 21,000. Could over-enrollment again have swamped the program’s capacity to get all participants working on day one?


Brighter Prospects For DC Summer Youth Employment Program

June 29, 2010

The D.C. Summer Youth Employment Program has strong support in the community, as well as in the Fenty administration. And his is not the first.

Giving kids jobs is good for the public image — better even than cutting ribbons at new libraries and swimming pools. It’s a sure, relatively cheap way to make some voters and future voters happy — so long as it delivers what it promises.

And it can, in fact, potentially do all the things the DC SYEP website claims — help participants develop the skills, attitudes and commitment needed to succeed in today’s work world, expose them to career choices, put money in their pockets, etc.

But the program has a history of administrative and financial troubles. These stem from a long-standing preference for maximizing enrollments, combined with a certain casualness about budgetary limitations.

So I’ve been curious to know what the prospects are for this summer. A recent oversight hearing by the DC Council’s Housing and Workforce Development Committee gave us a preview.

I was impressed by what Joe Walsh, head of the Department of Employment Services, told the committee DOES had done to address some of the most notorious lapses in the recent past.

DOES has apparently taken the Council’s cap on enrollment seriously. It’s provided job assignments for 21,285 youth, projecting that no-shows will bring the total down to the statutory 21,000 limit — perhaps lower.

It’s also significantly improved its process for ensuring that all enrolled youth are D.C. residents in the right age group (14-21 years old) and eligible to work. Information applicants provided was checked against existing databases, e.g., Social Security Administration, Department of Motor Vehicles and public school records.

Applicants without a government-issued photo ID had to show up in person to present other documentation. This ought to pretty well take care of past problems with jobs awarded to Virginia and Maryland residents.

Assignments to the Mayor’s Conservation Corps have been cut nearly in half and the number of work sites increased. Both these measures are intended to improve supervision.

Last year, observers noted large groups of Conservation Corps youth (easily identified by their blue tee shirts) lolling around or strolling down streets, with only a few actually doing clean-up. And then there were the kids who took time out to get high.

What’s less clear is whether DOES has sufficiently addressed the perennial problem of job quality. I suppose the answer depends on what one considers a high-quality job. If it’s just a jobs that actually involves ongoing work, performed under some reasonable degree of supervision, then DOES seems to be on the case.

Walsh said that all prospective employers were required to provide job descriptions and that the supervisors they’d designated got training. DOES staff visited their sites, though it’s not clear what they were checking beyond compliance with regulatory requirements like accessibility for people with disabilities. I infer there will be some additional monitoring while youth are onsite.

DOES also plans to improve its evaluation of the program. Last year, it relied entirely on a survey of participating youth. This year, it’s also going to do a work readiness assessment. That should provide an objective measure of how well the program achieves one of its major goals.

The department’s still got a way to go on others.

For example, well over half the jobs lined up are with the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Department of the Environment (home of the Conservation Corps), the public school system or another D.C. government entity. Community-based organizations account for nearly 6,600 more. Only 1,021 are with private, for-profit employers.

This undoubtedly reflects the relative ease (or difficulty) of lining up employers willing to take on the responsibility of training and supervising a bunch of teenagers, many of whom have no workplace experience whatever. But it would seem to skew the career opportunities participants get exposed to. Do we really want to expose so many youth to a future of picking up trash and weeding?

I understand that the very high percentage of public-sector and other public service jobs is common among summer youth employment programs. I guess it’s part of the trade-off for seeking to provide jobs for as many youth as a program can get funds for. I’m still of mixed minds about this.

But I feel a whole lot more confident about the District’s program than I did at this time last year.