Youth Jobs Program Gets Pink Slip

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By Natalie Gardner

Lake Village, Ark.—Federal dollars for a limousine ride and a manicure? Toyce Newton knows that what she did here on Valentine’s Day would delight critics who aim to slash funds for youth job training programs such as hers. But the fact is, by the time the Arkansas Youth Opportunity Movement treated 95 youth to a Valentine’s gala – complete with beauty makeovers and shoe shines – the ax had already been raised.

Ten days earlier, President George Bush unveiled a budget proposal that cuts Youth Opportunity Grants (YOGs), which fund Newton’s program and 35 others around the country, from $225 million this year to $44.5 million in 2003. The White House says the YOG functions can be handled by other programs, such as Jobs Corps.

Those who run YOG-funded programs disagree. For anyone looking for impact from a program that is being phased out, there’s this from rural Arkansas:

• A deputy prosecutor for Desha County says the Youth Opportunity Movement (known here as YO) has reduced juvenile crime so much that she credits it for closing the county’s 18-bed juvenile detention facility.

• One of Desha County’s largest employers says it located here specifically because of the skilled and federally subsidized labor provided by youths.

• Lake Village Schools Superintendent Joyce Vaught says YO has visibly helped youths who were “falling through the cracks. Now, with YO, they have one-on-one tutoring. It’s made a huge difference in their grades.”

But the program appears to have been a victim of the change in presidential administrations. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) pledged in February 2000 to spend $1.38 billion on the YOGs, but a senior Labor official says it will not meet that target because the agency never awarded a second round of grants, which would have come under Bush. The official says the president did not want to commit to more grants without evidence of success from the first grantees.

The YOG programs are so new that there are no evaluations of their effectiveness; that won’t come until at least next year, the DOL says.

“There is a lot of evidence this strategy works. In fact, it was built on a body of evidence that it works,” says Donna Walker James, senior program associate for the American Youth Policy Forum in Washington, D.C. “To say it’s not proven is just ridiculous.”

David Brown, executive director of the National Youth Employment Coalition (of which many of the YOG sites are members), called the proposed cuts “the most troubling” aspect of the budget proposal.

That proposal does not criticize YOGs, but notes that states can get other youth job-training money through the Workforce Investment Act. Bush’s budget would complete the five-year grants to existing YOG sites.

Most of the programs serve poor inner-city communities, including those in Detroit, Houston and Los Angeles. There are seven rural programs. The Youth Policy Forum recently highlighted the Arkansas program, where 55 staff serve 1,400 youths, as a model.

That model exists only because one person was willing to sit outside a governor’s office for three days.

A Rare Pot of Money

When Newton heard about the new YOG grants in 1999 and their mission to place at-risk young people (ages 14-21) in long-term jobs, the idea seemed tailor-made for Desha and Chicot counties (total pop.: 29,458).

Many youths here have little opportunity to further their education or build careers: 35 percent to 40 percent of the counties’ children live in poverty. Annual drop-out rates in middle and high schools hover around 3.6 to 4 percent. (The state average is 3 percent.) Both counties have high teen birth rates, with Desha’s among the highest in the state – 109.6 births per 1,000 women ages 15-19 in 1999, according to the Arkansas Department of Health’s latest figures. (The national teen birth rate is 49.6.)

The nonprofit Phoenix Youth & Family Services, where Newton is executive director, was already serving many of those kids through a contract with the state – offering follow-up counseling and after-care for juvenile delinquents coming out of Arkansas’ Division of Youth Services. But because the two counties were not considered federal empowerment zones, Newton’s YOG application had to be signed by Gov. Mike Huckabee (R).

With the deadline approaching and no signed application in hand, Newton went to Little Rock and camped out in front of the governor’s office for three days. Using every connection she had, she finally persuaded a staff member to include her proposal as one of the day’s priorities for the governor. He signed it on the day the application was due.

The grant gives YO $5 million for each of the first two years, $3.75 million for the third year and $5 million to cover the fourth and fifth years. (Grantees in large cities got up to $20 million for the first two years.)

That kind of money makes a big splash here, where there are few big companies youth programs can tap for support. “This is the first time in this area that we’ve had a pot of money that is sufficient to really do what we need and address the problems,” Newton says.

Elsewhere in the country, more than 30 businesses and 12 foundations have supplemented the YOG grants: In Newark, N.J., and Philadelphia, the Prudential Insurance Co. of America provided a $2.5 million four-year grant to launch a Young Entrepreneur Program, while AT&T kicked in another $100,000 for Newark to create an Academy of Information Technology for high school students. In San Diego, the Jacobs Family Foundation donated $5 million to build the San Diego Youth Opportunity Center, which houses a youth mall, Homey Youth Foundation and the Institute for Responsible Fatherhood.

Businesses have also teamed with YOG programs to hire youth as auto technicians, pharmacy technicians, United Parcel Service line workers and more. That’s true in Arkansas, where school districts have also helped by donating old buildings. Two of YO’s five sites (Lake Village and Eudora) are in renovated school buildings.

Tutoring and Tae Kwon Do

“They don’t come to play. They come to work.”

That’s Andrew Temple, operations manager for Temple Products, talking about the YO participants who’ve come to work for him. At one point, Temple says, about 80 percent of the greenhouse manufacturing company’s 56 employees came from YO. And because of YO, Temple expects to grow to 200 workers next spring.

The program has built a strong reputation among local employers with a “holistic” approach that might seem either all-inclusive or straying from its mission. Aside from such basic assistance as one-on-one tutoring, mentoring and ACT preparation, youths get substance abuse counseling and even etiquette lessons.

Evelyn Givens, director of the youth opportunity program for Chicot County, says “soft” skills are just as important as reading, writing and math. YO youths attend classes in communication, money management, anger management, leadership, parenting, diversity, tae kwon do and art.

How does that meet the YOG program goals to decrease high school drop-out rates, increase post-secondary school rates and increase employment?

“We’ve got to develop the young person from a socialization standpoint so they can be sufficient in the workplace,” Newton says. “We live in a very depressed area, economically. We try to expose them to as much as we can. Why would you get out of bed if this was your life?”

Especially challenging is that half of the youths are not in school; they frequently have extra barriers to career success, such as mental illness and child care needs. (The DOL requires each program to target both in-school and out-of-school youth, with most of the funds spent on the latter).

“We take them to dinner and the theater,” Newton says of all the youths who complete certain activities outlined in their individual service plans. “But all of these activities are tied to a program goal, and they can’t go on trips until they’ve met certain goals.”

And meeting those goals should lead to long-term employment. That’s where YO job developer Lee Simpson comes in. Jobs are already limited in this rural area, and most of the youth have never held a job. Simpson has made connections with everything from local nursing homes to catfish farms to welding shops.

One draw for the employer is that the DOL covers half the employee’s salary for up to 90 days, Simpson says. In fact, Temple says YO is “the main reason we located in McGehee,” a town of 4,570 in Desha County. “The payroll subsidies are great, and the job developers’ follow-up with the workers is incredible.”

Temple has 36 YO participants working at its factory. Five were hired full time after their 90-day subsidies ended. “We’ve had low turnover because these employees know how to hit the ground running when they get here,” Temple says.

For those headed to post-secondary school, the YOG grant provides tuition assistance to attend colleges and technical institutes. Those who receive such help must volunteer at YO to help other participants, and meet with someone from the agency once a month at the school, “just to check on things,” Givens says.

Not Just Jobs

Community leaders in Desha and Chicot counties say YO’s impact goes beyond giving a few employers cheap labor or helping a few young people bring home paychecks for a while.

Teresa French, deputy prosecutor for Desha County, credits YO with the closing of the county’s juvenile detention facility. “We opened that facility eight years ago, and it was always full,” French says. “Within the last year-and-a-half, we’ve had a huge decrease in the number of kids we’ve had to detain. We had to close the facility because it got to be where there were no youth there.”

“Before this program,” she says, “there was nothing for the youth to do. Now, they want to be employed and have help to get there.”

Dermott Mayor Floyd Gray says the program is the only thing youth have just for them. “We have no youth activities,” he says. “There’s nothing to motivate our kids. We don’t have tennis courts or swimming pools. We’ve been fighting for these things for a long time, but now at least we have this.”

“We’ve tried similar programs in the area using volunteers as mentors,” French says, “but the thing about YO is that they can coordinate it all. And that’s because they have the funding.”

Those seeking hard numbers, however, will find little. YOG program directors say it’s too early to evaluate the impact. They offer short-term participant numbers and statistics of how many youth are furthering their education or landing jobs. But there’s nothing yet on the programs’ effect on local economies, long-term employment, drop-outs rates or teen pregnancy.

Newton and other program directors have individual success stories and anecdotal evidence, like the facts that grades have risen in area schools and juvenile crime has dropped.

But even though DOL plans to fulfill the five-year grant to YO, keeping it afloat after that appears unlikely, especially when one of the largest employers in the two counties is YO itself.

How about Job Corps? As in much of the country, the nearest program is a hike – 150 miles away. And Newton contends that such a residential program “just doesn’t fit with these young people. We need a community-based program here. The program we have here is tailored to the specific needs of [our] youth.”

“As the grant reduces, the community is expected to pick up the services,” she says. “That’s going to be extremely difficult, especially for rural areas. Losing this funding would essentially wipe us out.”

Andrew D. Beadle contributed to this report.


Toyce Newton, Executive Director
Phoenix Youth & Family Services
P.O. Box 654
Crossett, AR 71635
(870) 364-1676 

Chad Aleshire
U.S. Department of Labor
200 Constitution Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20210
(202) 693-3900

By the Numbers

Of the 1,400 participants in YO, the program reports:

• 801 have remained in school.

• Six received GEDs.

• 11 dropouts returned to high

• 111 have earned a high school

• 114 entered college.

• 22 are in vocational training.

• 101 are in unsubsidized job
placement (average earnings:
$6.27 per hour).

Reaching Out-of-School Youth

In its second year of operation, the Arkansas Youth Opportunity Movement (YO) has 1,400 participants, 700 of whom are out of school. That makes it one of the top Youth Opportunity Grant (YOG) programs in terms of finding and recruiting out-of-school youth, which is often one of the biggest challenges for the programs. YO has hit 127 percent of its U.S. Department of Labor goal in this area (along with 106 percent of its goal for total enrollment).

One reason for this success: YO is among only a handful of YOG agencies to create a youth advocate program. The agency hires youth who have demonstrated outstanding leadership skills to work part-time at the YO centers and help recruit out-of-school participants.

“They have my ear and the ear of the management team,” says Toyce Newton, executive director of the YO parent agency, Phoenix Youth & Family Services. “It works because they have a full and complete voice in the services of their population.”
The program includes the youth leaders in staff training and sends them to the Youth Opportunity Leadership Institute twice a year.

“It’s a great addition because these young people give us the insight into what youth want in our programs,” Newton says.