A Few Lessons We Hope DC Leaders Have Learned From This Year’s Summer Youth Employment Program
It’s often said that Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result. Perhaps that’s why DC’s approach to budgeting the Summer Youth Employment Program has driven us a little crazy.
This week, the DC Council voted down a proposal to extend the program by seven days, after finding out that the program has run way over its budget. The funds identified to fill the gap and fund the extension came from federal stimulus dollars that were going to be used to help DC’s most vulnerable families with food and shelter.
We agree with the DC Council’s decision, and we hope our elected officials will not face the same decision next year. Here are some important lessons we hope the adults who design and fund the program will take away from this summer:
Lesson 1: The budget for summer jobs needs to be realistic, based on agreed-upon assumptions of the duration of the program and the expected number of participants.
Why is the tab for this year’s summer youth employment program running 30 percent — $7 million — over budget? According to the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, this year’s program will cost $29.8 million for six weeks, while the appropriated budget was $22.8 million.
There’s no justifiable reason for running over budget. The biggest expense of the program is the cost of youth wages, and even though this is not knowable down to the dime a year in advance, it is certainly a figure that can be easily estimated based on prior data. It is a basic calculation of the number of participants times the number of hours worked times the hourly wage. Given that agencies are expected to live within their budgets, the Mayor and Department of Employment Services should have adjusted enrollment and hours to fit within the available funding. Instead, enrollment was not capped at all, and the appropriated budget was ignored.
Lesson 2: The summer youth employment program should be right-sized to fit its purpose. That purpose should be providing a high-quality, meaningful summer work experience for participants.
DC’s summer jobs program is one of the largest in the country, but big hasn’t proven to be better in this case. The unwieldy size of the program makes it hard to find meaningful job placements and creates substantial management and oversight challenges for the Department of Employment Services, which consumes much of the agency’s energy. That attention and those resources are taken away from the agency’s main mission, which is to help get our adults ready and trained for work.
Lesson 3: Vulnerable families should not be placed at further risk by poor budgeting decisions.
The Fenty administration chose to cover the overspending in summer jobs by transferring funds meant to help vulnerable families with basic food and shelter needs. The Department of Human Services proposed to use those funds —stimulus dollars from TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — for other important purposes, including upgrading its case management system and expanding employment and training options for TANF recipients. The Council’s action to keep the Summer Youth Employment Program at six weeks — rather than extending it — limited the amount of TANF funds that will be diverted, but it still has placed funding for these initiatives at risk.
Lesson 4: The time to prepare for next year is now, not next summer.
The Fiscal Year 2011 Budget for Summer Youth Employment is even smaller than the current year’s budget. According to an analysis by DCFPI, the summer youth employment program is budgeted for approximately $17.3 million for next year. Now is the time to make realistic choices about how many youths can participate and for how long.