As 12,000 young District residents start their city-provided summer jobs Monday, officials are hoping to prove that their decision to include adults up to age 24 is worthwhile.
If the program can’t prove that it helps its oldest participants find jobs that last beyond the summer, it stands to lose the millions of dollars needed to maintain the expansion that began last summer.
In spring 2015, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) persuaded the D.C. Council to raise the age limit for the Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Program from 21 to 24 and also provide transportation subsidies to help the young workers reach jobs.
The move, which added $5 million to the program’s annual cost, bringing the total to $20.3 million, is aimed at trying to bring down the unemployment rate for young adults, said John Falcicchio, Bowser’s chief of staff.
Unemployment rates for D.C. residents between age 20 and 24 are almost double the average rate in the city and even higher for young black people. About 1,000 men and women between the ages of 22 and 24 were accepted to the 2016 program, the maximum number allowed.
But the additional funding came with stipulations. The council agreed to permanently expand funding for the new age division only if the program could show that at least 35 percent of the 22-to-24-year-olds had full-time jobs after they completed the six-week program.
Program organizers and the city auditor disagree over whether there’s enough data to prove that goal was met.
Program officials reported that 37 percent of the 844 participants in the oldest category who were seeking jobs had found them by December, according to the program’s summer 2015 report. Another 174 participants said they were returning to school and not seeking employment.
The city auditor’s office, however, found that the program’s data-collection methods were not thorough enough to make such a conclusion and said the data “should be viewed with caution.”
“We found a lot of issues with the way they did their calculations,” D.C. Auditor Kathleen Patterson said. “We questioned how precise the numbers were and made recommendations on how they could make the information-gathering process better.”
For example, auditors could not determine how many of the 247 participants reported to have full-time jobs after the program already held those jobs beforehand. When comparing the self-reported data with tax filings, auditors found that only 191 participants who were unemployed before the program had been hired after its completion, or 28 percent of those looking for work.
The D.C. Department of Employment Services, which runs the jobs program, welcomed the audit and has been working to better track participants’ employment status, said Molly Nuñez, spokeswoman for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Greater Economic Opportunity.
“We learned some things that worked and some things that didn’t work,” Falcicchio said. “We’re open to others looking at our programs and helping improve them. Our goal is to continually improve our program and make an easier path to the middle class.”
Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), who sought the audit, said it’s important to know that the money spent is actually improving the lives of District youths.
“I’m concerned by the auditor’s report, which raises questions about the accuracy of the data that was provided to the Council,” Silverman said in an email. “It’s clear that we need better data on the employment outcomes for participants so that we know what is working and what is not.”
For Ty Hobson-Powell, attending the program in 2014 was a crucial first step in his career. His first job as an assistant in the department’s Office of Youth Programs led to a permanent job with the program after the summer ended.
“It opened doors for me,” said the 21-year-old, who is now pursuing a doctorate in global affairs at Rutgers University. “I was allowed a platform and a first chance.”
Theenie Freeman, associate director of the Office of Youth Programs, said the older participants need the additional opportunities.
“It’s not uncommon in D.C. for a 21-year-old to only have jobs from our summer program on their résumé,” Freeman said. “It’s important that they continue to get exposure to the working world and build those skills they’ll need.”
Another part of the program’s expansion has gone much more smoothly. In the past week, workers with the jobs program gave out more than 10,000 SmarTrip cards worth $110 each to help participants, the majority of whom live in wards 7 and 8, get to their jobs across the city.
Without the card, 14-year-old Jendaya Washington would have struggled to reach her job at the Latin American Youth Center’s College Access program in Columbia Heights from her home near Malcolm X Elementary School in Ward 8.
“My mom said she couldn’t drive me, so it would’ve been hard” without the card, she said.
Last year, the Department of Employment Services paid $1.68 million to subsidize the youths’ transportation costs for the first few weeks. More than half of the members of the 2015 class said they would not have been able to get to and from their jobs without the help.