WASHINGTON — Schools are out this month, and government officials all over America are eager to restart a program that helps an estimated 330,000 at-risk youths find summer jobs.
They can't, however, because not only is Congress mired in a budget dispute, it's also taking a 10-day break.
So unless strapped state and local governments can find other money, summer job applications can't be processed. No employers can make commitments, and the disadvantaged 16- to 24-year-olds whom the program was created to serve are likely to remain jobless.
The House of Representatives approved $1 billion last week for the summer jobs program, but the Senate failed to act before it left last Friday for an extended Memorial Day holiday. Now the program's in limbo at least until Monday, when lawmakers return.
The longer the wait, the less the program can reduce joblessness among the nation's most vulnerable population. Unemployment among 16- to 19-year-olds was 25.4 percent in April.
"Summer's only so long, and it is a summer youth program," said Mark Mattke, the work force strategy and planning director at the Spokane Area Workforce Development Council. More than 5,700 people in Washington state got summer jobs through government programs last year.
Mattke's agency is typical of those around the country. Last year, when federal funding was approved in mid-February, the Spokane program got about 1,600 applications for 500 slots. Workers got a wide variety of jobs, from organic gardening to pre-apprentice work with electricians to office assignments.
The purpose is twofold: First, to get disadvantaged youths working. Sometimes their summer jobs provide important financial support for their families. Second, the program gives them experience that could lead to full-time positions.
Some areas are trying alternatives. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., developed a program using money already approved for Kansas City's Green Impact Zone to provide summer jobs for 500 youths.
The Green Zone project uses federal economic-stimulus money to improve a long-neglected 150-block area of the city. Cleaver, a former Kansas City mayor, persuaded local interests to kick in $1.25 million to leverage his request to use $5 million in stimulus money for summer jobs to help revitalize the area.
He said his initiative didn't negate the need for Congress to act.
"We have dual problems coming to a head as school adjourns for the summer," Cleaver said. "The same bleak job market that faces unemployed parents now faces their children, who now find themselves competing with adults for summer jobs."
Politics is part of the problem. The $1 billion is part of a large emergency-spending package that includes extended jobless benefits — many of which expired Wednesday — as well as extensions of several business tax breaks.
The House barely passed the plan, as moderate Democrats and Republicans voiced concerns about increasing the federal budget deficit.
Some lawmakers also raised philosophical reservations. Republicans said it was more important for the government to provide incentives to private employers to spur job creation, not simply to pay for summer jobs. Shrinking government is their answer, not spending more taxpayer dollars on make-work jobs.
"Let's really promote jobs by relieving job-creating businesses and workers of higher government spending, borrowing and taxes, instead of adding to those burdens," argued Rep. John Linder, R-Ga.
Many Democrats countered that the summer jobs program worked well last year, and that in an economic emergency it's crucial to help train and employ those who have the hardest time finding work.
"You have to look at the long-term picture. When youth aren't able to find work, it can have a long-term effect in terms of their employability, and result in lower pay throughout their careers," said Melissa Boteach, the manager of the Half in Ten anti-poverty campaign at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a liberal group.
Democrats also contend that the summer jobs provide a wide range of life experience. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a key program sponsor, cited her summer jobs: helping at her father's five-and-ten-cent store; working at a state park in Pasco, Wash., weeding and cleaning; and answering phones at a Bothell, Wash., glass company.
"Each one of those jobs helped me in a unique way," she said.
Without the federal money, it's questionable how many people can be helped, and in meaningful ways. After all, Mattke said, "it's not just putting a kid on a work crew somewhere."
(David Goldstein contributed to this story.)
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