Growing up in Brooklyn, Jason DePont had what seemed like a modest goal.
“I just wanted a job. I always wanted to work,” said the native of Spring Creek Gardens, a public housing project in East New York. “I thought it was the coolest thing.”
DePont’s first job came in the summer when he was just 14, working as a camp counselor nearby. The next year, he held a clerical position at a local non-profit group. This year DePont, now 18, is a paid summer intern at advertising company Mediaedge:CIA. All of these summer jobs came through the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program, which this year found positions for 42,000 New Yorkers between the ages of 14 and 21. [For a look at other ways New York's teenagers are making productive use of the summers see our related article: Teen Activists]
The youth employment program cannot keep pace with demand, however â€“ 30,000 applicants were turned away this summer because the city couldn't afford to accommodate them. Many New York teenagers were probably not able to find work independently, say labor market experts. This is not just about what kids do this summer, say advocates, but whether they learn to be successful in the world of work. Many argue that programs that find summer jobs for teenagers should be seen as part of a larger anti-poverty strategy. The city may be particularly receptive to such arguments now, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg has appointed a commission on poverty which he says will draft such a comprehensive policy, releasing policy recommendations next month.
Subsidized summer programs have been on shaky ground since 1998, when the federal government decided to cut drastically the money it gave to summer jobs programs, opting instead to fund year-round jobs programs that it believed would yield better results. New York City is one of a few places where local officials have tried to fill the gap. In the last several years, the city has been working to provide a more stable stream of money to the program and to address concerns that many of the jobs are simply “make work” positions â€“ cash assistance by another name.
“We don’t want them to always be dependent on a public jobs program,” said Jeanne Mullgrav, commissioner of the Department of Youth and Community Development, which runs the program. “We want them to have the skills to take their resume, market [themselves], and be employable.”
DePont, whose East New York neighborhood is known for high levels of unemployment â€“ and the poverty and crime that come with it â€“ believes he is on his way. He is not sure to where, of course. In the course of a half hour, he says he would like to be a cook, an actor, and a social worker. He wants to work in an office, but never be “stuck” there, and he wants a job that never makes him wake up early. His real goal, though, is to get away from a place where he feels that most of his peers are “beyond help.” He says the answer will be some sort of job.
“That actually does exist out there,” he said. “I’d like to find it.”
TEENAGERS AND JOBS
When Katherine Newman went to study teenaged employees of fast food restaurants in Harlem, she expected to profile kids who were forced to choose between work and school.
But "school and work weren't antithetical to one another," said Newman, whose book No Shame in My Game documents her findings. "Young people who were working were doing better in school than the young people who weren’t, because the discipline that they learned on the job and the oversight the business owners and mangers exercised over them was having a positive effect on their school performance."
The benefits of working while in high school extend beyond graduation, according to Andy Sum of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.
“Your earnings in your mid 20s are very much influenced by how much work you did all the way from the time you were 16,” he said. “The effects are even stronger for kids who don’t go on to a four year college.”
For many teenagers, though, the problem is finding a job. In recent years the percentage of teenagers who are working has dropped to a 50-year low. Teenagers in big cities are more likely to have to compete with older workers or immigrants who, to employers, seem like more stable prospects. The prospects are the worst for teenagers from low-income families, who have access to only the weakest labor markets.
The stakes are quite high, said Mark Levitan of the Community Service Society, author of a report on the 170,000 "disconnected youth", 6 to 24 year old New Yorkers who are no longer in school but have not found jobs.
THE SUMMER YOUTH EMPLOYMENT PROGRAM
Since its inception as part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, the Summer Youth Employment Program has been seen as a way to help teenagers find jobs, acknowledging that many would be unable to do so on their own. In New York, the city signs contracts with agencies that locate employment opportunities for participating teenagers. Most jobs are with non-profit groups, but there are also opportunities with government agencies or with private employers. The program pays participants the minimum wage with public money, and guarantees them employment. The employers get free labor, and 42,000 teenagers get jobs.
Montefiore Community Center in the Bronx is one of the biggest agencies in the program, placing 2,100 kids with various employers. Participants work with hospitals, local retailers, and other employers. They also serve as counselors at after school programs for younger children enrolled in summer school that would be unavailable otherwise and staff the community center itself.
“Their help is definitely needed,” said Debra Fort, who supervises 50 summer youth employees who serve meals to senior citizens, help with maintenance work, and generally assist those running the community center in the northern Bronx.
Fort acknowledges that not all of the kids she supervises are learning skills that could be applied directly to another job. But they are, she said, learning about the world of work. For many, this is their first experience at a place with a dress code â€“ the center is full of kids wearing bright white Summer Youth Employment Program t-shirts â€“ and the first time they have to show up to a job site each day. Fort also teaches them how to fill out resumes and applications.
Some critics have questioned the value of such programs, though. Summer jobs programs have been described as simply creating “make-work” positions that won't serve to transition kids into regular jobs as they get older. This was the rationale given when the federal government essentially stopped funding summer programs as part of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, favoring year round programs that it believed would be more effective â€“ but would serve fewer kids â€“ instead.
In the first year the law was in place, federal funding for New York’s program fell from $44 million to $15 million, forcing the city to eliminate almost 10,000 jobs. It now gets about $5 million. Other places, faced with the loss of federal funding, began to scale back their summer jobs program â€“ or eliminate them entirely. But New York officials tried to protect the program from cuts, while also continuing to address concerns about the value of the jobs themselves.
Backers of the program do say that make-work jobs are a concern, but also argue that many menial-seeming jobs often give teenagers experiences that help them move towards more fulfilling work later in life.
There has never been a study of how participants of the program fare over the long-term, but many of its strongest advocates had their first experience with the program as participants. Commissioner Mullgrav worked at the Arsenal in Central Park when she was a teenager, and four of six members of the council’s youth services committee also participated in the program, including its chair, Lew Fidler. When advocates traveled to Albany for a lobbying day, former participant Andre Harrell, the former CEO of Motown records, went along.
Since the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development took over the program in 2003, it has added an educational component to the jobs program, ensuring that every participant receives lessons on how taxes work, how resumes are written, and other such skills throughout the summer.
The city has also tried to place teenagers in jobs where they will be able to build connections that might land them regular jobs. The proportion of summer jobs in the private sector has increased from 10 percent in 2004 to 18 percent now. Some employers, including JP Morgan Chase and the Staten Island Yankees, have opted to keep participants to stay on beyond the end of the program in late August. Some employers, like the Door, a community center in lower Manhattan, have created career placement centers, which moves kids that work on its radio programs in the summer into internships with media companies in the fall, or landing teenagers who work in the kitchen jobs at fancy restaurants.
This year, the city also created a program called CAPITAL, where private companies agree to hire participants recommended by agencies who have already worked with them. The companies pay the salaries of CAPITAL participants themselves. â€“ giving a small amount of relief to a program that has long been faced with having more people who want to participate than money it has to pay them.
With the city and state committed to continuing to provide summer jobs, there is little debate over the value of its program â€“ the issue going forward has to do with its price.
In order to continue the program at its current levels, city and state officials have been left to fill a large gap left by the federal government. In 1999, Washington provided 80 percent of the funding; city tax dollars now make up more than half of the program’s budget. Meanwhile, the cost of each job is rising with the minimum wage.
New York has almost tripled the amount of money it puts into the summer jobs program, from $10 million in 1999 to $27 million today. But while it has been given a steadily larger allotment of city tax dollars, the program has also been subjected to the vagaries of the “budget dance,” where the mayor proposes cutting programs in order to have bargaining chips in budget negotiations with the City Council. Because planning for the jobs program starts before the budget is settled, this practice has proved burdensome for those running it.
Last year, though, Mayor Michael Bloomberg provided the program with over $17 million in permanent funding â€“ a process called baselining. This year, the city added another $9 million, bringing the total to about $26 million. Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who has made ending the budget dance a major issue, counted the additional baselining as one of her primary budget victories.
Agencies that work with the city agree that the permanent funding is a significant achievement.
“It’s very hard for a contactor to organize when they’re not really sure about the numbers,” said Bob Altman of the Montefiore Community Center. “This way, now we know that a lot of the money will be there, so we can plan ahead.”
In Albany, however, the program is still regularly excluded from the governor’s budget, only to be restored by the legislature. While funding has been restored each year, the dance can prove harmful. In 2004 the budget was passed so late that money that had been approved couldn’t be used, costing $6 million and some 3,00 0 jobs.
Advocates and city officials hope that the new governor will bring reform â€“ and stability.
“Any time you have programs which are in part funded by the city and in part funded by the state or the feds, it’s a tenuous situation,” said Speaker Quinn on a recent visit to a summer job work site. “I think we’re certainly going to be seeing changes in how things happen in Albany come next year, and I anticipate that those will be extraordinarily helpful.”