Guest Blog: Fenty’s Bad Math on Summer Jobs Hurts Those Who Need Help Most
It wasn’t much of a surprise to read this morning that DC’s summer youth employment program has already spent millions over its budget this year. Cost overruns for summer jobs are turning into a habit that won’t be broken without serious reform. It’s time to have an intervention.
The Fenty administration chose to continue its policy of serving about 20,000 youth this summer, clearly knowing it did not have the funds to support that many participants. According to Councilmember Michael Brown, who has oversight over the Department of Employment Services which runs the program, the $22.7 million budgeted for this summer only paid salaries for three and-a-half-weeks of the six-week program. To cover the shortfall, the administration redirected $8.4 million of federal stimulus dollars that could be used to support low-income families for basic needs in these tough economic times. On top of that, now the Fenty administration wants to extend the summer jobs program by seven additional work days, putting the program further in the red.
This is fiscally irresponsible, and it’s not the right way to run a high-quality youth employment program. DC’s program is simply too big, and the city’s difficulty in managing the oversized program is a disservice to kids and all of us. Sometimes the summer jobs program teaches young people valuable skills and provides useful experience, but sometimes it teaches young people that they can get paid for doing nothing. And by overspending its budget, the Fenty administration is taking money away from other important programs that help families stay afloat. (Not that a smaller-sized summer jobs program is a panacea: Smaller programs from previous years have also had mixed results.)
The city can do better. The summer jobs program is a predictable event. It is not a surprise that every summer the city operates this program – we can foresee that the same problems will occur again and again unless we make some changes.
1. Reduce the size of the program. It’s not politically popular, but neither is running a program that consistently has problems and does not always live up to its goals. Every summer, the Department of Employment Services has to dramatically ramp up its operations in a short period of time to run a program that is exponentially larger than any of its other jobs programs. This is not an insurmountable problem but appears to be a major challenge for the agency, making it more likely that logistical concerns (assigning youth to job sites, making sure payroll works and so on) swamps quality concerns.
2. Make a quality job experience the primary concern. Whatever the program’s size, the city needs to make sure the job is a good match for both kids and employers. That means ensuring youth have the appropriate skills for their assigned job sites and that employers have work for them to do. Youth and supervisors should both receive appropriate orientation and support over the summer.
3. Improve the managerial and financial systems to handle registration, job site assignment, timekeeping, payroll, and troubleshooting. With fewer youth, this should be more manageable.
Youth employment programs can play a constructive role in young people’s lives: connecting them to the world of work, teaching interpersonal and occupational skills, and serving as a springboard for the future.
For years, the city has taken the important step of prioritizing summer jobs for youth, but it has not backed that up with a commitment to quality. Nor has it aligned the program with budgetary realities or a clear-eyed assessment of the city’s administrative capacity. The city has focused on the size and symbolism of the program, overshadowing the practical steps and details necessary to make it successful. The city should either get the program right or stop doing it.