Monday, June 20, 2011

Do We Deserve to Be Number One?

This week's blog post center's on two recent news pieces that highlight children and youth in DC. First, Friday's edition of Post Local featured the first article of the season on the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP). Second, if you've been following the news at all, you have probably heard at least SOMETHING about DC's recent ranking by as the #1 "Best City for Families". These two articles don't seem to have a ton in common (and one of them isn't even really an article), but from the vantage point of a youth advocate, there is a decent amount of overlap.

For one, Parenting's explanation of why DC is the best city for families seems to center on the easy access the District provides to cultural landmarks and educational opportunities. The blurb their website uses to defend why DC is #1 says "you don't have to be a child to get an amazing education in this city. Our nation's capital is also known for its plenitude of museums—in fact, there are 44,second only to the Big Apple! If your kid enjoys visiting the National Air and Space Museum, imagine fostering his love of airplanes with trips to nearby Gravelly Point Park for front-seat views of the takeoffs and landings at Reagan National Airport."

Now to be totally honest, this statement is mostly true. DC's museums (well, more so, the choice venues that offer free admission) afford everyone in the District, from young children to the elderly, a fantastic opportunity for learning and enrichment. Now, lets snap back to reality for a moment shall we? Instead of the quote from Parenting let's look at a quote from the DC FiscalPolicy Institute "The District of Columbia’s poverty rate is far above the national average and has remained high even in periods of strong economic growth. Some 133,000 residents — nearly one-quarter of the population — are low income, which in 2006-2007 corresponded to an income at or below $24,475 a year for a family of three.[i] DC’s low-income population is so large that it would overflow RFK Stadium and the Nationals’ Ballpark combined. " The high percentage of low-income residents certainly need not preclude DC from being a fine place for families to live, however the high rates of unemployment, propensity for low educational attainment and a shrinking stock of affordable housing that have recently plagued the District beg the question "What kind of family would rate DC at the top of its list?"

Arnsdorf's Post article, despite being anecdotal, provides some evidence about the types of people who may NOT find the District to be the most appealing of cities. Foremost among those are certainly low and middle income youth. Young people need and want jobs for the same reason adults want and need jobs. Often times for young people, the jobs they hold as youth form the foundation of workforce skills that makes them successful in the workplace. Access to jobs and workforce development opportunities is an absolutely key factor in evaluating livable cities. The lack of jobs offered by SYEP, as well as by private providers this summer does not help young people think DC is a city rife with opportunity and this goes for the bulk of DC's adult workforce as well.

Furthermore, parents of children and youth who may disagree with DC's top ranking probably would not be too hard to find. The Post article talked to both youth and parents who were upset by the lack of summer employment opportunities, but parents concerns often go beyond finding their kids a job. DCAYA has called the public attention time and time again to the OVERALL lack of structured opportunities for children and youth this summer. Summer school enrollments are severely limited compared to what they were last year, the Children and Youth Investment Trust, Corporation only had 1 million dollars to grant out for traditional summer programming and the City’s DPR sites were until fairly recently, woefully understaffed. The summer learning loss that will occur this summer will have negative academic impacts on students for years to come. The graph below from the National Summer Learning Association, illustrates the losses economically disadvantaged students experience during the summer months. Notice that these students already start school a few rungs below their middle-class counterparts. By divesting in meaningful and structured programming for DC's children and youth we are literally undoing the educational gains made during the school year.

Unfortunately the outlook for the same children and youth who will be the most negatively affected by the lack of programming this summer does not become much rosier during the school year. One need only look the FY’12 Budget to see evidence of this. Despite a relatively steady education budget, students and their families are not receiving adequate supports. Without stability in our families,communities and yes even in our labor market, economically disadvantaged students will always start their educational lives well below their peers.

DC has the potential to truly be the #1 place for families in the nation, but we as a city only deserve this distinction if we are a good place for ALL families. Being able to take advantage of amenities like museums and cultural landmarks is part of what makes DC great, however it is unfair to the thousands of individuals and families who call the District home to assert the EVERYONE finds DC a great place to learn and thrive.

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