YouthBuild’s Shaky Foundation

Print More

Tanarae Greenman watched YouthBuild quickly grow into one of her most popular and effective programs at the Community Services Consortium in Lebanon, Ore. “We’ve done a lot of youth programs, and I think YouthBuild is the best we’ve ever operated,” says Greenman, the consortium’s regional manager.

Today, however, it’s hard for her to get enthusiastic about the shoestring version of YouthBuild that the consortium offers, to far fewer youths than it used to. Hers is one of about 30 YouthBuild sites identified as at risk of closing this fiscal year because of federal funding cuts, out of about 226 sites nationwide. That’s on top of nine programs that have closed since September.

This wasn’t supposed to happen to YouthBuild, which helps disconnected youth earn diplomas and learn construction skills, and has studies to show its effectiveness. In 2004, its biggest Washington supporter, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), was the Democratic presidential candidate, and YouthBuild advocates supported a transfer of the program to the U.S. Department of Labor, believing DOL would expand it.

YouthBuild serves 8,000 youths a year, but its advocates want funding to serve 50,000.

However, a steady dose of budget cuts have left about 150 YouthBuild sites without federal funds for the past two years, according to YouthBuild USA, a nonprofit that provides assistance to the federal grantees. Most of the programs, run by local nonprofits and government agencies, have reduced services and the number of youth they serve, according to YouthBuild USA.

“We’re on a razor’s edge,” says YouthBuild USA President Dorothy Stoneman, who started the first YouthBuild program in 1978.

How did it get there?

Seeds of Trouble?

Kerry first won federal funding for YouthBuild in 1993, through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but it’s really a job-training program akin to Job Corps, which is housed in DOL. When the current Bush administration proposed moving YouthBuild to DOL, Stoneman and other supporters eventually backed the move, saying DOL officials told them they saw room for expansion of YouthBuild within the department’s Employment Training Administration.

YouthBuild USA set one major condition for its support, according to a 2006 post on its website: “that the appropriation level did not decrease.”

But since negotiation of the transfer began in earnest in 2004, with the transfer made official in 2006, funding has declined. The program went from a peak of $65 million in 2004 to $47 million in 2007, which is not much more than its initial federal allotment in 1993. More than 1,000 organizations applied for the three-year YouthBuild grants in 2007; only 96 were approved.

That’s 21 more grantees than in 2006, but that expansion was possible only because DOL reduced the maximum size of a grant from $700,000 to $550,000. The awards still left 150 active sites without federal funds for the second straight year, according to Stoneman.

A cut in funds, she says, “was not supposed to be part of the deal.”

The reductions have had impacts on the ground. Since losing its federal grant, Greenman says her YouthBuild program has gone from five full-time staffers to two full-timers and a part-time counselor, and from serving 20 youth to serving 12.

Congress has appropriated $58.9 million for YouthBuild for fiscal 2008, but the 30 most beleaguered programs might not last until whenever DOL opens the grant competition. In New York, for instance, more than half of the 14 YouthBuild programs are likely to shut down this year, according to YouthBuild USA.

Greenman’s program and others, such as the Ulster YouthBuild Partnership in Kingston, N.Y., say they can run scaled-down versions of YouthBuild for another year using a grant from Wal-Mart passed on to them by YouthBuild USA.

But if Ulster YouthBuild Partnership misses out on the next round of federal grants, its president, Bonnie Landi, says, “After 13 years of service, we’ll be out of business.”

DOL’s Dedication

Lots of social service programs have lost funding in recent years; that’s the risk of relying on Washington. Landi notes that YouthBuild moved to DOL “when everyone was losing money because of the war.”

Greenman, whose organization is an intermediary for other DOL funding in Oregon, doubts that the department was ever as invested in expanding YouthBuild as it led YouthBuild USA leadership to believe. “I think that DOL does not believe in as rich a program as YouthBuild [USA] believes in,” she says.

Some observers were never certain that YouthBuild was safer at DOL, which is funded by what might be the most contentious and erratic of the congressional appropriations bills. The measure that funds the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education is a basket that “everybody has an egg in,” says Seth Turner, federal and state affairs manager for Goodwill Industries, who closely followed work force development as public policy director at the National Youth Employment Coalition. “Moving over to Labor is just cramming another egg into a tight basket.”

Turner says he was suspicious from the start, when the transfer to DOL was made without funds being appropriated. (That was rectified, after some nervous months at YouthBuild sites.) “If an appropriator wanted to move money, he could have just done authorizing language right there,” Turner says. “That raised an eyebrow for me.”

Also, you can’t help but wonder if Stoneman’s open support for Kerry in the 2004 presidential election cost YouthBuild support in the Republican administration. (Democrats, however, won control of Congress in 2006.)

“I don’t think so,” Stoneman says. “The cuts YouthBuild suffered were just part of a general effort by the administration to cut domestic discretionary spending.”

Asked if she regrets backing the move to DOL, Stoneman says, “The jury’s still out. The idea was, in Labor, that [YouthBuild] could become a central piece of strategy” at the Employment Training Administration (ETA). “I still have that hope, [people at] Labor still have that hope. But [it] can’t happen without more money.”

Emily Stover DeRocco, who ran ETA when it negotiated the transfer, declined to be interviewed for this story. But if the agency was once supportive, it appears less so now. Asked if ETA supports an expansion of YouthBuild, a spokesperson replied: “ETA supports the president’s request, which is $50 million for 2009.”

YouthBuild’s best bet might lie in a Democrat winning the White House in November. In speeches made on the campaign trail, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has said he would expand YouthBuild to serve 50,000 youth annually and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) has described YouthBuild as a program that can “create 50,000 jobs.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who will be the Republican nominee, has no official position on YouthBuild, but campaign officials have spoken with YouthBuild leaders, according to a campaign staffer.

YouthBuild’s strongest Washington ally, Kerry, announced last month that he will propose $100 million for YouthBuild in fiscal 2009, drawing a standing ovation at a gathering of young leaders. (See story, page 4). Fifty-nine senators have signed his letter asking for the appropriation or have written their own.

Turner, of Goodwill, doubts that a significant funding boost is likely for social service programs. The next president “will inherit a big deficit, and they’ll still have a war to fund or pull out of,” he says. “It’s going to be difficult for any candidate to just go do what they want to do.”

Contact: YouthBuild USA (617) 623-9900,; ETA (202) 693-5052,