Thursday, May 14, 2009

Policy Alert: Open Letter to the Council for the District of Columbia

The letter below was sent to the entire Council for the District of Columbia, the City Administrator and the Director of the DC Department of Employment Services on behalf of Martha Ross, Deputy Director, Greater Washington Research at Brookings, Eshauna Smith, Executive Director, DC Alliance of Youth Advocates and Angela Jones Hackley, Chair, Washington Grantmakers' Children, Youth and Families Working Group. This letter expresses the collective concerns and recommendations for the District's Summer Youth Employment Program.

We are concerned that the 2009 Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) will not provide a meaningful work experience for District young people. The city is to be applauded for setting a bold goal to help youth with a robust summer program. However, it needs to develop greater clarity about the goals of SYEP and align those goals with budgetary realities and the Department of Employment Services' (DOES) administrative capacity. 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.

* We support the DC Council's recent budget mark-up actions to create a smaller program in FY 2010. We hope the District will use this as an opportunity to create a meaningful program for all participants.

* We also recommend that the District modify this summer's program, which already is well beyond its budget. We hope that the city will operate a program that runs as close to its original budget as possible, rather than use precious revenues to support a program that is too large and diffuse in its goals to be high-quality. With 24,000 youth enrolled and the nation in a recession, there are few attractive choices to cut costs. It may be that attrition will reduce enrollment. Other choices are to reduce the number of hours that youth work or to shorten the duration of the program.

* If the city is serious about helping youth, it should set a goal of enhancing its year-round programs. Youth need guidance, support and skill-building throughout the year, not only in the summer months. Program slots for "disconnected youth" - young people aged 16-24 out of school and out of work - are in especially short supply. In 2007, the Department of Employment Services served a total of 290 out-of-school youth in year-round programs. Youth with multiple challenges benefit from the supportive structure of a well-run long-term program, and they do not receive that full support through summer jobs.

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. But that is not the summer jobs program we have here. The SYEP has a mixed track record. Although some youth have positive experiences every summer, that is due to the individual initiative of host sites and contractors, not by design or oversight. And while host sites and contractors have historically played a critical role in the program, the administration appears to have reduced the number of contract partnerships this year with entities that have proven track records.

In the 2008 SYEP, the administration instituted an open enrollment policy and extended the length of the program to 10 weeks. While the intent of serving more children was laudable, this decision was made without assessing the fiscal, logistical and programmatic effects of these policy changes. Consequently, last summer's program had well-publicized problems that led to a $30 million overrun and the firing of the agency's director. But even before SYEP's expansion to 21,000+ participants in 2008, DOES did not administer a consistently high-quality program. Last summer was not the first time young people got paid to do nothing or had trouble getting paid the correct amount.

The FY 2009 budget allocates $23 million for this summer's jobs program. That budget was developed assuming about 15,000 youth would participate for six weeks. Instead, the administration has enrolled about 24,000 youth for a program lasting nine weeks. This will cover virtually the entire summer vacation, since DC Public Schools will be closed for 10 weeks. The main cost driver for SYEP is youth wages. 24,000 youth in a nine-week program will cost an estimated $37-38 million in wages alone. Consequently, Mayor Fenty recently announced that he will seek an additional $21 million for the program from the Community Benefit Fund related to Nationals Park, bringing the total price tag for the 2009 SYEP to more than $40 million. That is a lot of money, especially in a tough budget year and for a program with a well-known set of administrative and quality problems.

Accordingly, the District will have to make tough decisions about the 2009 SYEP. The District should not run a 2009 Summer Youth Employment Program that is more expensive than it has budgeted for. While it is probably too late to make major changes to improve the quality of this summer's jobs program, we are hopeful that lessons learned from last year and smart choices made by DOES Director Joseph Walsh will result in a more efficient program this year.

Looking ahead to FY 2010, Mayor Fenty's proposed FY 2010 budget allocates $43 million to SYEP and $9 million towards year-round youth employment programs. The Committee on Housing and Workforce Development cut summer jobs funding by $20 million, recommending that enrollment be limited to 21,000 and program duration to 6 weeks.

Given last summer's experience and the current situation, we support the Council's action, although ideally the Department of Employment Services should have administrative flexibility and not be bound by guidelines that may not be relevant in the future. We urge DOES to use this as an opportunity to improve the quality of SYEP. Instead of serving 21,000 youth next year, the Department of Employment Services needs time and support to focus on core SYEP issues: improving program administration, getting youth work-ready, defining quality job placements, developing the capacity to monitor host sites, and engaging private-sector employers. DOES should run a smaller and perhaps shorter program next summer to allow it to build standards and processes to assure a quality experience.

Lastly, the previous DOES Director and additional personnel were fired last year for failing to carry out a smooth summer jobs program that was expanded to 10 weeks with unlimited enrollment. The program parameters are largely the same for the 2009 program. It is predictable that there will be administrative and payroll problems this year as well, regardless of how competent and hard-working the director and other DOES staff are.

In summary, we suggest the following principals regarding youth employment programs:

* The District should strengthen year-round youth employment programs.

* The District should run a 2009 Summer Youth Employment Program that remains within its budget.

* The District should operate a Summer Youth Employment Program that provides a uniform high-quality experience and produces strong, well-defined employment-related outcomes.

* The Department of Employment Services should be given time and support to develop a high-quality summer jobs program in 2010 and beyond without the pressure of unlimited enrollment.