A Heckuva Job

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A Heckuva Job 

The Bush administration fiasco that unfolded along the Gulf Coast last month painfully brought to public attention the truth about the political hacks and hangers-on who fill so many top jobs in most federal agencies. That open secret in Washington remains of little interest to the media elite or, for that matter, to almost any member of Congress.

The Senate confirmation hearing for Michael Brown, now the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, lasted 42 minutes.

The stable of well-qualified Republican appointees to positions that affect youth and youth services has always been thin. Fretting over disadvantaged youth (except for fretting over their sex lives) attracts few GOP show horses. Let’s face it: It’s a good bet there’s no big financial payoff on K Street or Wall Street for disadvantaged youth experts when the Bush administration crosses the finish line in January 2009.

Unqualified Bush appointees abound, including J. Robert Flores, administrator of the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. His qualification is as an anti-child porn crusader. His deputy, Bill Woodward, a former Navy SEAL, is better suited to aqua duties in New Orleans.

Then there’s Tracy Henke, the acting assistant attorney general of the Office of Justice Programs, whose disastrous tenure is being rewarded by a promotion to executive director of the Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness at the Department of Homeland Security – that is, unless Katrina has awakened the slumbering Senate, which has yet to confirm her.

Over in the Department of Education, there’s Deborah Price, assistant deputy secretary in the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, whose sole qualification to manage an $860 million budget is that she needed a job when her boss, Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), retired from the Senate.

Absent a Katrina-like negative surge in youth-wellness indicators, President Bush’s appointments to high-level policy jobs that affect the youth field are unlikely to lead to a sudden catastrophe. Since President Bush took office, the number of children living in poverty has risen by 1.5 million, and for all ages by 4.1 million.

When it comes to FEMAesque indifference and incompetence in the youth field, the Department of Labor (DOL) is the pace-setter in the race for the bottom. It is headed by Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, who hasn’t done a real day’s labor on behalf of wage and salaried workers since becoming the secretary of cheap labor in January 2001.

One telling anecdote occurred at one of DOL’s annual employee appreciation days. It was repeatedly rescheduled so Chao could attend to express her appreciation to DOL’s 15,595 civil servants. But when the day arrived, Chao was a no-show, staying upstairs in her office chatting on the telephone.

But the former Peace Corps director loves to travel far and wide. In December 2003, she went to Benin, West Africa, to announce a $2 million grant to combat child trafficking and prostitution. The best that can be said of Chao’s tenure so far is that her neglect of disadvantaged youth is benign. Her brief tenure as CEO of United Way of America is remembered for … actually, it’s not remembered at all.

Prior to her appointment at DOL, Chao spent five years as a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. (Translation: little work, cameo appearances with her husband, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and $195,000 per year in spending money). That gave her plenty of spare time to read “How to Close Down the Labor Department,” a 1995 Heritage study written by Mark Wilson. Among the guidance offered: “Consolidate all job training programs for the economically disadvantaged into a state block grant” with “minimal federal oversight functions”; and everything, including Job Corps, “should be transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services,” just like the Children’s Bureau was in 1946. After all, asked Wilson, “Why should we continue to spend taxpayer money on programs that don’t work?”

Rooked by Bishop

Most of the DOL’s youth-related programs are in the Employment and Training Administration (ETA), where Emily Stover DeRocco serves as assistant secretary. DeRocco, says one key Capitol Hill Democratic staffer, is “maniacal” and “treacherous to deal with.”

But if there is an equivalent disaster-in-waiting in the youth field to rival Brown, the now-disgraced former FEMA director, it would be DeRocco’s pedantic deputy, Mason Bishop. Like Brown, Bishop brought no substantive professional background to his job as deputy assistant secretary in the ETA. He is armed with two degrees from Brigham Young University and a brief stint working on marketing and legislation for DeRocco at the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. Prior to that, he was a low-paid P.R. guy for Utah’s Department of Workforce Services. Like Brown at FEMA, Bishop’s qualifications – other than loyalty to President Bush – would have made him a million-to-one bet on the list of professionals qualified for his job, which is to oversee ETA’s $11.1 billion budget and 1,200 employees.

One colleague from Bishop’s days in Utah says “he was nothing in Utah,” adding that those who knew him in the state were “stunned” by his DOL appointment.

While DeRocco is Bishop’s titular boss, say co-workers at DOL, it is Bishop who is in frequent contact with the White House. And as former White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives head John Diluilo has famously observed, there is no policy side to the White House operations – only a political side.

While lacking the public pain and drama of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the employment prospects for the nation’s out-of-work and out-of-school youth are grim. In September, labor economist Andy Sum of Northeastern University’s respected Center for Labor Market Studies released a report on teen summer joblessness. Sum found that the summer 2005 employment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds was only 36.7 percent, a near- tie with last year’s 36.4 percent. Since 2000, summer employment rates for teens have dropped by 8 percent.

While first lady Laura Bush is out visiting youth programs with a special focus on young minority men, she might ponder Sum’s findings on teen male employment, which this summer hit its lowest level since data was first collected 57 years ago. Young, white teens had an employment rate of 40.5 percent, black teens were employed at a miserable rate of 22.4 percent. That’s almost four out-of-five black teens unemployed.

ETA’s youth employment activities are carried out primarily by the Office of Youth Services (OYS), established in 1998 by Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman. Appointed as administrator was Lorenzo Harrison, who for 20 years was chief operating officer of New York-based STRIVE, a no-nonsense and widely-acclaimed job readiness program aimed at the hardcore unemployed. Harrison brought to his job everything that Bishop did not: proven management ability, profound knowledge of the youth field, the respect of his peers in the employment and training sector, a reputation for integrity and a keen commitment to youth development.

Under Harrison (and the Clinton administration), OYS prospered. Job Corps (now funded at $1.5 billion), became part of OYS in 2000. The $250 million Youth Opportunities Program (YOP), the $14 million Responsible Reintegration for Young Offenders (up to $55 million in 2001), the phasing-out School-to-Work program and more than $1 billion in Youth Activities under the Workforce Investment Act added up to some $3.5 billion in spending for disadvantaged youth.

Now – with the always-isolationist Job Corps transferred to DOL’s Office of Performance and Administration, the ending of YOP, cutbacks to the juvenile offenders effort and reductions in the WIA state formula grants – OYS funding adds up to less than $1 billion. Little is left for OYS to do but interact with state and local workforce officials.

One thankfully retired ETA staffer found Bishop “very poisoned toward youth programs.” Says Bishop’s former Utah colleague: “He’s death on youth programs.”

Nothing better illustrates Bishop’s hostility to programs serving disadvantaged youth than the recent history of PEPnet, a best practice-recognition endeavor created and managed by the field’s leading umbrella group, the National Youth Employment Coalition (NYEC). Headed by career youth worker David Brown, the 26-year-old nonprofit has more than 275 member agencies in 41 states. Its membership includes many of the most talented and politically astute leaders in the field.

Since 1995, NYEC’s members have carefully reviewed about 300 applications for outstanding programs that meet stringent criteria for excellence. Prospective PEPnet winners were further vetted by career staff within the ETA. From 1996 to 2003, PEPnet awards went to 96 programs. Underwriting the cost was DOL funding that about $200,000 over 10 years.

PEPnet awardees might not meet the gold standard of random assignment evaluations, but neither do supposedly demand-driven and GOP-compatible programs pushed by ETA, including the Leesburg, Va.-based Skills USA; the Troy, Mich.-based

Automotive Youth Educational Systems; and the Alexandria, Va.-based Jobs for America’s Grads.

NYEC has developed PEPnet Quality Standards using four categories: effective management; program design; youth development competencies of the youth worker staff; and measuring youth results in the job market. The specifics of how NYEC promotes best practices are spelled out in detail at www.nyec.org/pepnet. The entire NYEC program of award recognition and training of key managers in the youth employment and training field, directed by Kate O’Sullivan, has won almost universal praise from Capitol Hill to local community based organizations – including those who didn’t finish in the money.

One PEPnet winner is MY TURN, Inc., in Brockton, Mass, run for all of its 21 years by Barbara Duffy. MY TURN won a PEPnet award in 1998 for its innovative programs for disadvantaged youth. It was “the thing that put us on the [national] map,” says Duffy. After the award ceremony at DOL, Duffy recalls telling herself that DOL Secretary Herman had just given her an award for work in a field that has few rewards, and that it wasn’t going to get better than that.

She was wrong. A year later, sitting in the audience at the NYEP’s annual PEPnet Institute as Duffy described her agency’s work was a program officer from New York’s Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. A few years later, that connection led to a grant from the foundation of $1.8 million over three years. The prestige within the field attached to the award helped little Brockton’s grant application win a federal Youth Opportunity Grant of $18.3 million over five years. In 1999, the Charlottesville, Va.-based Pew Partnership for Civic Change cited MY TURN as one of 19 solutions to the problems facing America’s youth.

Today, MY TURN is expanding steadily, with 40 staff in 15 cities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, up from five sites before the PEPnet award.
Mike Buzbee, the director for 34 years of Gulf Coast Trades Center, based in New Waverly, Texas, seconds that assessment of PEPnet. The center serves 170 juvenile offenders placed by the Texas Youth Commission.

The center has tripled in size since winning a PEPnet award in 1996. Now some 300 staff not only serve youth at the center’s campus, but provide re-entry support for ex- juvenile offenders in 157 Texas counties. The award helped land $3 million in corporate and foundation support from the Houston Endowment and others.

As for today’s ETA, says Buzbee, “It sucks,” adding that, “Bishop’s idea of a youth program is soccer.”

But according to several ETA staffers, assistant secretary Bishop had one word for PEPnet: “Crap.” In 2003, the grant was cut off over the strenuous objections of Harrison. Said ETA in its perfunctory rejection letter of June 8, 2004: “ETA has begun an effort to provide more federal outreach to provide direct technical assistance to workforce system grantees.” This while ETA was closing six of its 10 regional offices around the country.

DeRocco’s and Bishop’s ETA has its defenders. One is Ann Higdon, president of Improved Solutions for Urban Systems (ISUS), which runs youth programs in Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio, with support from government, conservative foundations and the Ohio Rotary Clubs. ISUS’s four affiliated programs, including charter schools, and a YouthBuild program just received $1 million from DOL to aid two hundred 16- to 22-year-olds leaving Ohio’s corrections system.

The ETA under the Bush administration, Higdon says, is “far more on target than they ever were before.” Thanks to changes at the Labor Department, ISUS has more flexibility in serving its 450 youth who have either dropped out or been kicked out of public schools.

After five years on the job, Bishop, by some reckoning, has gone a long way toward hollowing out OYS’s ability to contribute anything that smacks of field-building. Signaling that the gutting of OYS was complete, Administrator Harrison was demoted from the senior executive service and transferred to DOL’s regional office in New York. Replacing Harrison is civil servant Greg Weltz, who, one peer says, is one of ETA’s “best and brightest” – a compliment without much caché, given the staff exodus from the OYS.

Says one close colleague about Harrison, “I’m surprised he lasted as long as he did.” Given Bishop’s wide reputation as “petty and vindictive,” as one Capitol Hill staffer put it, others agree. One former OYS colleague of Harrison’s is more cautious, saying: “They just bumped heads.” Texan PEPnet award-winner Buzbee – noting Bishop’s antipathy toward NYEC’s Brown and OYS’s Harrison, who are both black – has a blunter assessment of Bishop: “He’s a racist.”

When the NYEC PEPnet Institute’s 250 youth workers convene in Arlington, VA in early October, one thing you can bet on is that assistant secretary Mason Bishop will win no awards. For Bishop, both of President Bush’s most famous quotes apply: “Mission accomplished,” and, “You’ve done a heckuva a job, Brownie.”

Contact: NYEC (202) 659-1064, www.nyec.org; ETA (202) 693-2700, www.doleta.org.