On July 5, nearly 30,000 New York City youth went off to their first day as participants in the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP).
That morning, Jason Ebanks stood in front of a classroom at the Henry Street Settlement, a social services provider based in the Lower East Side. A former SYEP participant who went on to graduate from SUNY-Buffalo, Ebanks, 27, was there to teach this summer’s SYEP orientation. In a city where youth and teen unemployment has spiked in recent years, the Settlement’s classroom was filled with scores of young people. But it was less busy than at the beginning of the past two summers, when the Settlement had the government funding to offer summer jobs to 1,500 young people, 256 more than this year. And the drop-off was even more marked from 2009, when federal stimulus money allowed the Settlement to offer the program to 3,000 youth.
“I can say that my SYEP experience was surely what sparked the interest that created the drive that pushed me and helps me, to this day, persevere through most things,” said Ebanks, who worked as a junior camp counselor in the Bronx in the summer of 2000. “We will never know how many Cornel Wests, Octavia Butlers or Malcolm X’s we’ve missed out on by cutting these budgets.”
For many of Ebanks’ students, this will be their first real job — an opportunity to work, earn income and learn adult life skills. The program provides youth ages 14–24 with seven weeks of work experience, often as counselors or aides at summer day camps or in government agencies, community centers, cultural institutions or professional offices. Almost 75 percent of SYEP participants are black and Latino youth, who as a group suffer an unemployment rate well above 30 percent.
The program also includes weekly educational sessions on responsibility, time and money management, workplace expectations and exploration of career and educational opportunities. Participants are paid minimum wage, $7.25 per hour, for both work and classroom time, taking home a salary every two weeks.
“It’s really important for minors because it gives them the opportunity to apply for and get jobs that they otherwise couldn’t,” said Nandrianina Rarivoson, a 20-year-old Union College junior who is interning at a law office through SYEP. She recalls trying to find a retail job at age 16, to no avail. She received her first paid job through SYEP in 2010 when she was hired as a teacher’s assistant at the Red Apple Child Development Center. Last summer, she was rehired at Red Apple for a full-time summer staff position as head counselor.
100,000 Left Out
For many, SYEP provides that first crucial opportunity to get a foot in the door of the professional world, but for the roughly 100,000 young people who also applied but were not chosen through the Department of Youth and Community Development’s (DYCD) lottery this summer, the outlook is different.
“They’re looking for jobs, or if not, they’re in the house all day or trying to find something to do,” said Larry White, a 21-year-old SYEP participant, of six of his friends who applied to SYEP this summer but were not selected. While White is working as a leadership mentor with teens at Grand Street Settlement, his friends who are looking for jobs are trying to find a position working in the parks, with youth, or in retail, he says. “They’re out every morning, trying to get interviews on the spot, resumé in hand.”
Last year, a DYCD survey of youth participants indicated that without SYEP, 77 percent of them would not have had a summer job. Tenzing Andrugtsang, a 15-year-old doing data entry at Bellevue Hospital through SYEP, says that without the program, she wouldn’t be employed. “I’d have to wait until I was 17 or 18 to get a job, perhaps at a retail store like other teens,” she said. When asked what she’d be doing with her summer if she didn’t have the Bellevue position, she replied, “Honestly, nothing.”
Founded in the late 1960s, SYEP is widely praised for giving disadvantaged youth a positive alternative to being out of work and on the street during the summer. With a budget of $43 million ($20.6 million of which comes from the city), it is hobbled by a shortage of funding that allowed it to place less than a fourth of this year’s 132,187 applicants. The number of summer jobs offered by the program is expected to decline from 31,628 last year to about 29,000 this year, according to Andre White, director of SYEP. This was caused in part by a recent drop in private funding, on which the program has become more dependent since Mayor Michael Bloomberg cut $3.3 million from its budget in 2011.
“It’s kind of a back-door cut, which is a lot harder to fight and to really galvanize people around,” said Kevin Douglas, policy analyst at United Neighborhood Houses and co-chair of the Campaign for Summer Jobs, a coalition of citywide SYEP providers that advocates for SYEP funding. “They thought they were going to rely on private dollars, and that’s a very risky strategy to budget the future on.”
Asked if it would be feasible to provide a job for every SYEP applicant if funds weren’t limited, White replied, “We’d definitely put all 131,000 kids to work if we had the money.”
Kristina Sepulveda, director of youth employment services at Henry Street Settlement, echoes the sentiment. The Settlement received 7,492 SYEP applications and was able to offer 1,244 spots this summer, although it had thousands more possible jobs available. “We have three times more worksite slots than kids,” Sepulveda said. “The demand from employers is there.”
“It’s a shame that we always have to be having conversations every year about how many slots are we going to lose, how many slots can we bring back,” added Melissa Mark-Viverito (D, WFP-East Harlem), a member of the City Council’s Committee on Youth Services. “The fact that it’s a program that is even on the chopping block to me doesn’t make sense because it’s a wise investment and the returns are so much more for us as a society.”
In June, DYCD, which oversees SYEP, released a concept paper that hints at the continued financial pressures the program is facing. Under this draft plan, DYCD estimates providing 23,000 summer jobs next year while reducing all participants’ work assignments from seven weeks to six. The hours of 14- and 15-year-olds would be capped at 20 per week.
Advocates are concerned that a further scaling back of SYEP would not only shortchange participants in the program but could also affect younger children and working families across the city. Over half of all SYEP participants work at summer daycare or day camp centers, looking after and leading younger children in educational and recreational activities.
As the number of SYEP participants decreases, so does the number of children that can be served by these centers. “It’s kind of like a multiplier effect: the less kids that are in SYEP, the less kids that can actually be served through other programs,” said Douglas of the Campaign for Summer Jobs.
Putting SYEP participants on a six-week work schedule will likely force summer daycare and day camp providers to scale down their programs from seven to six weeks as well, putting an additional burden on families who rely on these facilities during the summer.
“What does that mean for working parents?” asked Gregory Rideout, deputy program officer for youth services and workforce development at Henry Street Settlement. “They’ve got three to four weeks before school starts in which they’re going to have to figure out their own childcare.”
In an interview, Andre White of SYEP stressed that the concept paper is only a proposal. As The Indypendent went to press, the DYCD was still accepting public comments.
A Larger Pattern
The underfunding of SYEP follows on the heels of a drive this spring by Bloomberg to cut city funding for childcare and after-school programs by $170 million, a move that was thwarted by the City Council. Cuts in public education spending in recent years have contributed to overcrowded classrooms, while CUNY community colleges have seen funding cuts coupled with rising tuition. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, 42 percent of all stop-and-frisks performed in 2011 targeted black and Latino youth ages 14-24, though they make up only 5 percent of the city’s population.
At a July 5 press conference held at the Queens Botanical Garden to mark the first day of SYEP, Bloomberg seized on the opportunity afforded by media presence to rail against critics of the NYPD’s policing practices, in particular, stop-and-frisk.
“Right here in New York City, we have interest groups, politicians and now judges that are hell-bent on reversing the progress that we’ve made,” Bloomberg said. “We have an aggressive effort by some here to take us backwards in time. I can just tell you, we are not going to let that happen.”
Ironically, Bloomberg made headlines last summer when he announced he was teaming up with fellow billionaire George Soros to donate $60 million in seed money toward a three-year, $127.5 million city program known as the Young Men’s Initiative. YMI’s stated goal is “to tackle the broad disparities slowing the advancement of black and Latino young men.” As envisioned, YMI would bring together under one umbrella a number of city initiatives, from overhauling the city’s Department of Probation to providing mentoring and literacy services to “disconnected” youth. One thing it doesn’t envision is directing any funds toward creating actual jobs for young people.
For Councilwoman Mark-Viverito, the mayor’s policies toward the city’s disadvantaged youth continue to be frustrating and contradictory.
“It just doesn’t seem to connect the dots,” said Mark-Viverito of Bloomberg’s parallel launch of YMI and insistence on stop-and-frisk, both programs targeting young black and Latino men, albeit in very different ways. “And then when you couple that with cutting programs that are directed at young people, SYEP, after-school programs, the childcare slots, again, it doesn’t really seem to connect with what he is saying.”
“It’s like everything is being done in a vacuum, and one thing detracts from another.”
Jobs Not Jails
New York City’s spending on summer jobs for youth is dwarfed by what it spends on a police force that disproportionately targets young people of color:
- # of participants in youth summer jobs program in 2009: 52,255
- # of participants in youth summer jobs program in 2010: 35,725
- # of participants in youth summer jobs program in 2011: 31,628
- # of participants in youth summer jobs program in 2012: 29,000 (est.)
- # of applicants not accepted for 2012 youth summer jobs program in 2012: 103,000 (est.)
- Total spending on NYC youth summer jobs program: $43 million
- City funds allocated for NYC summer jobs program: $20.6 million
- FY 2012 budget for the New York Police Department: $4.55 billion
- FY 2012 overtime spending by the NYPD: $585 million
- Money spent on policing Occupy Wall Street, (Sept. 2011 to March 2012): $17 million
- # of stop-and-frisks experienced by black and Latino males ages 14-24 in 2011: 341,581
Sources: Summer Youth Employment Program, New York City Council Public Safety Committee, NYPD, NYCLU