How Not to Run Youth Employment

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When it comes to expanding a youth employment program, you can have too much of a good thing.

That’s what happened in Washington, which was cited by Youth Today as one of the forward-looking jurisdictions that are using debit cards to pay youths in their summer employment programs. (See “Summer Jobs: Ditch the Paychecks and Paper,” July 2008.) The debit cards, however, only served to highlight the ongoing problems in the city’s program.

In mid-July, thousands of youths complained that they either were underpaid – sometimes getting as little as 5 cents – or not paid at all for the previous week’s work. Others said they were getting neither a meaningful educational nor a worthwhile job experience. Some spent the first four weeks of the program sitting in an auditorium or classroom with nothing to do.

David Umansky, a spokesman for the city’s chief financial officer, Natwar M. Gandhi, said the payment problems had nothing to do with the debit cards, but with incorrect information being entered into the computer system.

The larger problem was the summer jobs program itself.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty had planned to increase the city’s long-troubled jobs program from 12,000 youths to 19,000 youths. The actual number exceeded 21,000, though no one is sure of the exact number. Sufficient money to pay all those additional workers wasn’t factored into the budget. Neither was the increase in the federal minimum wage – from $5.85 to $6.55 an hour, effective in late July – or the city’s $10 pay rate for college students.

By August, the program was $31 million over its $21 million budget. The mayor had to ask the D.C. City Council to use more than $20 million from a city contingency fund to pay the youth employees.

“The idea of enrolling as many teens as possible and then figuring out how to pay for it violates the basic principles of budgeting: deciding how much to spend and then sticking with it,” Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, which studies budget and tax issues, told The Washington Post.

The mayor eventually forced out Summer Spencer, director of the Department of Employment Services, and planned to replace her with his chief of staff. Two city council members asked the city’s inspector general to investigate the payment problems, including reports that everyone who signed up for the program was paid whether they worked or not.