D.C.'s Slimmed-Down Summer Jobs Program Still Cost $41 Million

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 9, 2009; B02

The District spent $41 million on its just completed summer jobs program, significantly less than last year, when the mayor promised a job to any youth who wanted one, but enough to eclipse similar programs in most big cities.

City officials said 19,680 youths took part in this year's program, more than twice the number who participated in nearby Baltimore or in Boston. Only New York City had more summer job participants, 51,000, chosen by lottery.

Although most city leaders support the program, some say it has become too unwieldy and costly during Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's tenure. Other cities have cut back or leaned heavily on private donations and federal stimulus dollars to fund summer jobs program. But Fenty (D) has continued to rely on city dollars while officials struggle to close a $666 million budget gap over three years.

Fenty eliminated about 1,900 government jobs and backed increases in parking meter fees and sales, cigarette and gas taxes because of the budget gap.

Fenty, 38, a city native who as a teenager participated in the summer job program, said the educational and public safety benefits of the program are worth the expense. "Young people who are not doing something positive are much more likely to get into something negative," he said.

Before Fenty took office, the budget for the program, which employs young people ages 14 to 21, was about $22 million. In addition to his open-enrollment mandate, Fenty has extended the program from six to nearly 10 weeks.

The D.C. Council responded by capping next year's program at 21,000 participants and six weeks, with a price tag of $20 million.

"This has been a six-week program for years, and it was effective. It isn't just a matter of quantity in terms of the number of weeks and the number of kids served," said council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D). "We want every position to have a life skills component."

Fenty said the District has always had a larger program than other cities of its size. "That's something to be proud of. It's a legacy. People rightfully expect it," he said.

He said his expansion of the jobs program "fits within my focus on youth." He cited his initiatives to improve public schools, juvenile detention and recreation. "Summer jobs complements all of that in a very comprehensive and productive way," Fenty said.

Kathryn Baer, a District-based consultant who specializes in policy research and communications, said the summer jobs program suffers from a bloated budget and a lack of focus. "The crux of the matter is: What is the purpose of the program? Is it to give [participants] money? Is it to give them work experience to be job-ready and reduce the dropout rate? These are two very different things."

The emphasis appears to be on quantity, said Martha Ross, deputy director of Greater Washington Research at Brookings. "Part of the point of pride in the city is about the numbers. No youth is turned away," she said.

Last year, that policy led to one of Fenty's major misadventures. The city spent $55 million -- more than $30 million in excess of the budget -- as the Department of Employment Services was overwhelmed by the directive to serve every eligible young person who asked for a job. Several participants who did no work were paid. Electronic debit cards, which the program used to pay workers, were provided to some past participants who had not signed up again. Employment Services entered into expensive contracts with nonprofits to find jobs for youths, costing the city about $10 million.

Many of last year's problems appear to have been addressed by the new director of employment services, Joseph P. Walsh Jr., who implemented a new computerized payroll system and earlier registration. He also reduced the number of contracts given to nonprofits from $10 million to $1.9 million.

Still, this year's program had problems. Community e-mail lists and blogs lit up over the 10 weeks, complaining about the Mayor's Conservation Corps, a program that put 2,700 participants to work beautifying neighborhoods. There were reports of participants -- easy to spot in their blue T-shirts -- running out of things to do, lacking proper supervision or appearing to idle on sidewalks as they took breaks from the summer heat. The Washington City Paper's Web site displayed a photo of four participants smoking marijuana.

Walsh said he and his staff are looking at ways to improve the conservation corps next summer. But he said most of the young people were good workers and had good experiences. At an end-of-the-summer program Aug. 27 at Shaw Middle School, several participants spoke about how they learned to be better communicators and how the program taught them the importance of getting to work on time each day. One talked about her experience working at the White House, part of what Walsh said was a stronger partnership with the Obama administration than the mayor's office had with the Bush administration. Last year, nine participants had federal jobs; this year, 867 did.

Fenty said he is determined to find a way around the council's caps on next year's program. "There's a long time between now and next summer," he said.

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