Saying Nope to SYEP

Does summer employment program deserve extra funds?

On Monday, District residents’ tax dollars went to pay Summer Youth Employment Program participants to attend a Council oversight session at which they lobbied for more funding for the program.

It’s just the latest outrage surrounding one of D.C.’s best-intentioned and worst-run programs.

SYEP, which hires about 20,000 D.C. youth for various minimum wage summer jobs, was budgeted at $22.7 million. But it’s already $11.5 million over budget -- an overrun of 50 percent.

D.C. Auditor Deborah Nichols said Monday that “the lack of fiscal discipline in the design and execution [of SYEP] is irresponsible, poses a threat to other vital District programs and the District's fiscal stability in these austere economic circumstances.” She said this year’s cost overruns are nothing new -- SYEP overspent by more than $56 million over the past two years.

Mayor Adrian Fenty’s response: He wants SYEP extended an extra week.

The Fenty Administration took $8.5 million from federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funding to fill this year’s gap. That money had been expected to go to homeless service agencies. Marta Beresin, of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, reported a 36 percent increase in D.C. homelessness since the recession began, and there are currently 543 Washington families waiting for emergency shelter services.

Homeless advocates said they were already underfunded before this expected windfall was yanked away from them. Even one SYEP participant appeared yesterday to say that the city should help homeless families, not extend SYEP by seven days.

Councilmember Mary Cheh told Department of Employment Services Director Joseph Walsh that the Fenty Administration shifted funds without Council approval. “You had a program, and you were going ahead with that program and that was the end of it,” she said.

Walsh sheepishly replied, “It is without a doubt, we received additional funds beyond what the council gave us.”

SYEP has problems beyond its budget. There are records of students not getting paid for work they did -- and of some getting paid even though they didn’t work. In 2008, more than 200 students from outside D.C., who are ineligible, snuck into the program -- as did more than 100 people over age 50. The very first day of this year’s SYEP found students without job assignments, supervisors without background checks, and a theft investigation, according to the Washington Examiner. And there have been several instances of students being mugged on paydays because they were wearing shirts that identified them as SYEP participants.

Councilmember Michael Brown, who heads the committee that oversees SYEP, told WTOP last month, “We have questioned from time to time what the motives are. Is the motive to just have as many people signed up as possible so you can say you gave X amount of people a job for summer? Or is the purpose to give young folks experience to the work environment?”

Fenty communications director Mafara Hobson has said, “All we're trying to do is give kids an opportunity to make additional money and have constructive activities leading up to school.” But Brown’s “X amount” has nearly tripled under Fenty, so it’s laughable to say there’s no politics at play.

The government cannot create jobs, it can only create payroll. The needs of the D.C. government do not increase by 40 percent simply because school lets out, but the number of people working for the city government shoots up from about 30,000 to 50,000 when SYEP is in session.

A lot of this, then, is busy work. Young people are basically being paid to stay off the streets and stay out of trouble.

But SYEP creates problems all around. District offices may not have the actual need for these temporary, untrained workers, and so time is expended on trying to figure out where to stick them. SYEP participants who really do want to succeed are stymied by the system, and even by citizens. (I was in one city office recently, and a person in line refused to deal with a SYEP staffer, insisting on talking to someone “real.”)

As Cheh said at Monday’s hearing, “To borrow a phrase from my daughter, this blows.”

Yep. And the Council shouldn’t blow any money on an extra week of SYEP.

UPDATE: On Tuesday, the Council voted 9 to 2 against extending the summer jobs program by seven days with $4.3 million from a federal poverty program, The Washington Post reported. Council members Muriel Bowser and Harry Thomas Jr. voted in favor of the extension, and council members Marion Barry and Jim Graham were not present for the vote. Councilman David Catania accused Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi of knowing about the cost overruns in May and said the council would not have known about the program being over budget if Fenty hadn't asked for the extension.

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