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A better D.C. summer jobs program

Thursday, March 3, 2011; 8:54 PM

IT'S BEEN SOMETHING of an annual ritual in the District to hear horror stories about the city-run summer work program for youth. Program participants who worked didn't get paid, while others got money for not doing a lick of work. Ineligible people ended up enrolling even as city officials busted the budget. So the administration of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) is to be commended for taking needed - although perhaps unpopular - steps to reform a program that, if properly run, can do a lot of good.

Unlike in previous years, when former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) welcomed all comers into the summer work program, the Department of Employment Services capped the number of participants at 12,000. Applicants must undergo a more rigorous vetting and orientation process. Once they prove their eligibility, they will be required to complete an online orientation, attend in-person work prep sessions, and submit a resume or self-profile to be matched with specific jobs. Not only will these new limits allow the program to operate within its $12 million budget (a little more than half the $23 million spent last year), but they might result in a program that provides worthwhile job experience. Administration officials say that there is a healthy interest in the program, with more than 12,000 applications received and more than 70 percent of the summer jobs coming not from D.C. government but from nonprofits, private companies and federal agencies.

What was most troubling about the program in the past was the wrong message sent to young people who were paid for doing nothing or, at best, given make-work assignments. Jobs programs ought to prepare young people for the adult world of work by giving them valuable experience, new skills and an understanding of what is expected in the workplace. Well-run programs are smart investments in the future. Paying children to keep them off the streets or make their parents happy may have been politically popular, but it was a real disservice to the children who were supposed to be helped.

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