The Public Policy

A Summer Job for Every Kid

Thousands of D.C. teens have just been laid off. Thank goodness.

By 9.10.08

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WASHINGTON -- I'm not a big fan of "working." That's why I regret not signing up for D.C.'s Summer Youth Employment Program.

"We don't do nothing," said Samantha Baskin, a 14-year-old participant.

That's my kind of job.

Too bad I missed out. Late last month was the final day of the ten-week program, which ostensibly provides "meaningful work experiences" to D.C. youth between the ages of 14 and 21. This summer, a record 21,018 kids signed up -- nearly quadruple the number from five years ago.

Mayor Adrian Fenty vowed to give a summer job to every kid who wanted one. But it turned out there were more jobs than there was work to do, forcing many kids into made-up vocations that consisted of nothing more than receiving government paychecks.

By mid-July, the program had already run out of money. With several weeks remaining, Fenty asked for $20.1 million in emergency funding, which the program subsequently received, bringing its total cost to $52.4 million -- almost four times its original budget ($14.5 million).

Yeah, but so what? I mean, we're talking about children here, aren't we?

Not necessarily. According to a report released after an internal investigation of the program, 104 registrants were either too young or too old even to apply -- some "youths" were over 50 years old -- yet they were paid. Another 207 "participants" aren't even District residents -- and they were paid. In addition, 1,881 dropouts -- those with "perfect absenteeism," as the report phrases it -- were still receiving salaries even weeks after they quit. This taught them a lesson: Showing up to work is no prerequisite to having a job.

Other kids weren't so lucky. Those employed by the Washington East of the River Academy, which was four weeks late in getting started because of administrative miscues, had an unusual assignment. "We just go to a classroom and sit all day," said one 17-year-old. "We can't even talk to each other." Some 700 kids were forced to sit, just sit, in a hot auditorium for roughly a month. Instead of acquiring "job skills," they got to experience what detention feels like. That alone should prepare many of them for this fall semester.

OF THOSE WHO BOTHERED to show up, countless kids didn't work, often through no fault of their own. Either they arrived only to be told there was nothing for them to do, or the city assigned them to nonexistent worksites. As the report puts it, "youth did not know where to go to work, and DOES [Department of Employment Services] did not know where to send them."

Meanwhile, the city -- out of confusion, negligence, and outright fraud in some cases -- was paying kids who skipped work and underpaying others who did what they were told. Time and attendance records were so shoddy that officials had no way of knowing who worked and who didn't.

Not wanting to shortchange anyone, the administration erred on the side of overspending -- a natural consequence of overpromising -- by awarding a salary to everyone who registered for the program, regardless of whether they actually worked or not. This meant, in effect, that requesting a job was enough to get paid for one. As a result, the program ended up costing $31 million more than planned. Oops.

Former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, who created the program 29 years ago, called this year's "the most mismanaged programmatically and financially in the history of the program."

Don't worry. Mayor Fenty said his administration is taking steps to "ensure these problems will not happen again." What a relief. Yet, if history teaches us anything, it's that whenever government learns from its mistakes, it finds a way to make new ones.

Supporters of the program would have us believe this year is an anomaly. As appalling as it was, it followed the historical pattern. Consider these old headlines: "Youth Job Drive in Deep Trouble Before It Starts" (1980), "1 in 3 Eligible Youths in District Fails to Appear for Summer Job" (1980), "City Summer Jobs Program Off to Its Usual Glitch-Riddled Start" (1981), "D.C. Summer Jobs Coming Up Short" (1997), just to name a few.

THE PROGRAM IS continually plagued by glitches because it is premised on a fallacy. Its reason for existence is to employ the unemployable -- kids who, by definition, have minimal skills and little to no experience. Many of them have anger-management issues to boot. "Sure, some of our young people have attitudes," Alexis Roberson, former director of the Department of Employment Services (DOES), once admitted. "If you have a young person with a bad attitude, help them change it."

That offer is unlikely to entice many employers.

That's not the point, say advocates of subsidized child labor. As they see it, D.C.'s summer jobs program exists not so much to make kids productive as to prevent them from being counterproductive. It is a method of crime prevention, supposedly. "Youth offending is directly correlated to youth employment," claims City Administrator Dan Tangherlini. Earlier this year, Mayor Fenty told a group of business leaders, "So many young people can get into trouble when they're not challenged, when they're not busy."

Fair enough. But the whole point of staying busy is to suppress boredom, and it's obvious these summer jobs don't suppress boredom but, in many cases, intensify it.

If there is a solution to this dilemma, it is to stop devising solutions. D.C.'s summer jobs program, like many of its participants, doesn't work. As its numbers increase, so do its failures. However, it does succeed in one respect. By teaching kids that it pays to do nothing, it is preparing them for, if nothing else, future careers in the public sector.

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About the Author

Windsor Mann is a writer living in Washington, D.C., and the editor of The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism.