HERE IS ANOTHER upbeat development that might dispel a little of the gloom caused by the continuing rise in unemployment in this once recession-proof area. It concerns the District summer jobs program. The city, it seems, has finally gotten its act together and is running a program that is, by and large, as trouble-free as such operations can reasonably be expected to be.
It isn't easy to create and supervise thousands of temporary jobs on short notice, and uncertainty about federal funding has made the task especially hard for all localities. The District, however, set some records for poor performance in recent years. Job applicants received no assignments while job vacancies went unfilled; employers were sent workers unqualified for or uninterested in their work; paycheck snafus were common.
This year, however, the District started planning well ahead. Recognizing the special urgency created by disastrous unemployment levels for minority youths and cutbacks of federal funds, the city government added several million dollars of its own to match the contribution made by the federal government. Although the great bulk of the 20,000 jobs funded by the program are in the public sector, city officials worked with private employers to expand job opportunities and to make sure that youths referred to them had the needed skills and interests. 4 Of course, there are still problems. No employer can be expected to compensate for the fact that a distressing number of local youths lack the basic skills and discipline needed to hold a job at any level. Other well-qualified youths have been disappointed that job offerings didn't live up to their talents and expectations. But the summer job program has come a long way from the days when it was regarded primarily as a way to keep kids off the street and put a little money in their pockets -- whether earned or not.
What's sad about all this is that just as job program administrators are learning to treat summer jobs as an important learning experience for low-income youths, the administration is planning to end federal support for the program. Summer jobs were originally designated as a sacrosanct "safety net" program, but the administration's budget for next year called for no separate funding for the program. Both the Senate and the House have passed bills that continue authorization for the program, but that won't do any good unless money is appropriated to back it up.
Perhaps the good example provided this year by the District -- and other programs around the nation -- will help change the administration's mind about the need for job and training programs to give at least some disadvantaged youths a chance for a better life.