Last summer, Habibah Tucker got her first job ever, and it changed her life.
"It gave me a sense of independence," says Tucker, an 11th grader at the Peace Academy in Crown Heights, who participated in the Summer Youth Employment Program as a maintenance worker in Fort Greene.
"If I didn't have the job, I probably would've just stayed home. I don't know how I would have earned money. My mom's already struggling."
This summer, thanks to a new federal law, she may have to stay home.
Federally-funded summer jobs for needy teenagers have long been one of the country's most popular programs and an original part of the Great Society legislative agenda of the Lyndon Johnson administration.
Since the 1964 passing of the Economic Opportunity Act, needy city teens have been offered the safety belt of a summer job during the bumpy months of school vacation. The theory was that lower-income teenagers could gain job skills, earn money for themselves and their families, and stay out of trouble while providing community organizations and municipal agencies with staff.
In recent years, New York City received about $50 million in federal funding for close to 50,000 summer workers. Low-income youths from the five boroughs were signed up to staff camps and day care centers, maintain parks and recreational facilities, clean school buildings and public housing projects and tutor children.
But the program was dissolved last year when the package of welfare reforms signed by President Bill Clinton was put in place after two years of hammering. Titled the Workforce Investment Act, its framers intended to transform the current system of "fragmented and duplicative" welfare programs into a coordinated "workforce development and literacy system."
Under the legislation's framework, the Summer Youth Employment Program was "duplicative" of the new government services provided the rest of the year. As such, the summer jobs program - and its funding - is now just one ingredient in a full menu of year-round youth programs.
Some youth labor experts said that the summer work experience is best served as a cherry on top of a school year of internships or part-time jobs, and classroom instruction in vocational skills. David Brown, deputy director of the National Youth Employment Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based network of youth employment and development organizations, said, "The focus is now on much more comprehensive programs and follow-up, plus more expectations and requirements for the young people."
But the bad news, he continued, is that while the act does not end government-supported summer youth activities, there is no additional money, and thus local programs will have little choice but to serve fewer youths.
"It's a dilemma," Brown said. "Is it better to provide a narrow service to a whole bunch of kids, or focus on a fuller range of services to fewer kids?"
The dilemma doesn't need to be a Catch-22, said Theresa Greenberg, assistant executive director of the Forest Hills Community House. "Both programs help kids," she said. "It's not a matter of one or the other. The year-round component is really important for a small number, but we have 50,000 kids who can and want to work during the summer. And during the school year, they need to concentrate on school and part-time jobs."
But the $87 million in federal money awarded the state, of which almost three-quarters go to the city, is a block grant meant only for teens enrolled in Workforce Investment Act services. Many youth historically entitled to federally funded summer jobs are not longer eligible under the Workforce Investment Act.
Over and above being economically disadvantaged and between 14- and 21-years-old, young people must also demonstrate at least one additional "barrier to employment," such as being an offender or dropout, pregnant or parenting, homeless or in foster care. The city Department of Employment estimates 12,600 youth are involved in year-round programming as opposed to the more than 50,000 teens who want summer jobs.
In response to the drop of participating teens, this spring, the state and city cobbled together about $25,000 in emergency funding to save the separate summer jobs program. According to May Chin, a spokesperson for the city Department of Employment, officials are also looking to tap into another $25,000 in discretionary Temporary Assistance for Needs Family funds. Without this money, thousands of teens who aren't part of year-round Workforce Investment Act programming would perhaps still be searching for summer work.
While summer program advocates applauded the stopgap money as a step in the right direction, they insist that what New York should really be doing is create its own summer jobs program.
The Campaign for Summer Jobs, a coalition of community-based organizations, has successfully mobilized the fight for money to save the program, including rallies on the steps of City Hall and floods of petitions to the City Council. In addition, legislation is before the New York State Assembly and Senate to create a permanent summer job program. Passage of these bills will "eliminate the uncertainty that has surrounded the summer jobs program in 2000 and 2001," said Assemblyman William Scarborough of Queens, a sponsor of one of the bills.
Taci Flint of United Neighborhood Houses, a leader of the Campaign for Summer Jobs, said summer jobs have many other purposes. "Not only are they working and earning their own money, but they're also contributing to the community. Our community organizations have grown to really count on these workers."
Some of the organizations that have historically depended on the new summer blood include the Henry Street Settlement in Manhattan, Mosholu Montefiore Community Center in the Bronx, the Chinese American Planning Council in Brooklyn, and the Forest Hills Community House. Mary Halloway, executive director of the Association for a Better New York, a business advocacy organization, said it would be "catastrophic" if the summer jobs program was eliminated. "The summer job experience is vital for New York's teens and the future of the city's workforce."
Politicians say they want a skilled workforce, said Viola Fusco, a 16-year-old student at the Satellite Academy in the South Bronx who now works at Old Navy in Harlem earning $6.50 an hour. "Hello. We're young. We need to get the experience first."
The comments section is provided as a free service to our readers. Gotham Gazette's editors reserve the right to delete any comments. Some reasons why comments might get deleted: inappropriate or offensive content, off-topic remarks or spam.