The Congressional Black Caucus and the politics of summer jobs

By Perry Bacon
Tuesday, May 4, 2010; A21

Congress will appropriate more than $1 trillion this year, and all the Congressional Black Caucus wants is $1.3 billion. But after six months of haggling over the funding for a youth jobs program, the group is running out of time.

The 42-member CBC has pushed for months for Congress to extend funding for a youth summer jobs initiative that was created in last year's economic stimulus bill. Similar to a program in the District, the initiative gives localities money to hire young people ages 14 to 24 for clerical work, construction and other entry-level jobs that last six to eight weeks.

The funding is not specifically allocated based on race, but localities are encouraged to offer jobs to youths who are "most in need," such as high school dropouts and children whose parents are incarcerated -- groups that are disproportionately African American. The CBC hopes the funding will provide for about 300,000 jobs.

The failure to secure the money illustrates a broader challenge for the CBC. In the midst of the recession, black lawmakers and civil rights advocates have called for specific policies to aid African Americans and other low-income people. Their argument is twofold: At 16 percent, the unemployment rate among blacks is higher than for other groups, and the increase in federal spending to ease the recession could help address persistent unemployment and other long-standing problems for blacks and low-income people.

Rather than focus their efforts on President Obama, who has expressed reluctance to target funds for blacks or any other group, the CBC has tried to push measures through Congress. But as deficit concerns rise in both parties, the black lawmakers have had little success.

A $154 billion "second stimulus" passed in the House in December included billions for programs that could benefit low-income people, including the summer jobs initiative, but the bill was pared to $15 billion in the Senate. A $100 billion bill supported by the CBC for a New Deal-style government hiring program has also stalled.

In March, a proposal from Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and backed by the CBC to fund a year-round youth jobs program was rejected by Republicans and a few Democrats, such as Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who have long complained about spending increases.

"There has been a real reluctance to target things, specifically to the black community," said John A. Powell, executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), vice chairman of the CBC, said the struggle to secure the youth jobs money was not much different from other debates the black lawmakers have had.

"We always have to fight, every year, to get money for jobs" in black areas, said Cleaver.

Cleaver played down any tension between the caucus and party leaders or Obama, whose administration has supported the youth jobs initiative.

The idea of the federal government paying for youth employment is not without controversy. The program in the District, which would receive additional funding under the initiative, was criticized two years ago for paying participants who didn't actually work.

Congressional Republicans have blasted the idea of a federal summer jobs program, arguing that it does nothing to reduce unemployment because the jobs are temporary, and some liberal-leaning groups say creating jobs that last throughout the year would be more effective.

But Cleaver and other CBC members insist that the initiative is especially critical this year, because the recession has reduced the ability of businesses to hire teenagers. So the CBC, which has met repeatedly with Obama administration officials and Senate Democratic leaders, plans to spend the next several weeks pushing to attach the program to legislation that must pass, such as war funding.

Cleaver says he worries about increased crime and other problems if teenagers don't have jobs, even temporary ones.

"If you live in the urban core and you have a great deal of idleness, you are going to have a great deal of social problems," he said. "We've seen this play out many times over the years."

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