Help for Older Youth Missing in Mayor’s Plans

David R. Jones, La Nueva Mayoria / The New Majority

As our mayor works to complete his second budget in office, there is a good deal to applaud about his prioritization of supports for those who need it most.

In terms of education and youth, he continues to aid working families through early childhood education and afterschool programs.  I also agree with his efforts to invest in underperforming schools to turn them around, instead of closing them immediately.

But one area that he has yet to address in either of his first two budgets are the 186,000 young people between the ages of 16 through 24 who are out of school and out of work.  We used to refer to them as “disconnected youth,” but a better term--preferred by the Obama administration, among others--is “opportunity youth,” since these young people represent a real chance for our cities to strengthen their economies and lower inequality.

Unfortunately, however, neither the mayor nor the City Council have taken leadership with regards to this population.  The mayor has announced a new Center for Youth Employment, which sounds promising, although it will be supported by private funds, which tend to be less sustainable in the long term.  The Center has announced plans to improve the college- and career-readiness of high school students through more summer jobs, mentoring, and internships.  These efforts are important, but they will largely go to those young people still in school.  While they may reduce future numbers of opportunity youth, we need to do more to reconnect those young people that are out of school and out of work today.

Worryingly, we may even be heading in the opposite direction.  Two years ago, the City Council Speaker’s office worked to create a new funding stream--$18 million over two years—targeted to support out-of-school young adults who would be eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a federal program allowing for young adults to gain legal residency, but only if they were enrolled in educational programming.  The City’s DACA initiative aimed to connect thousands of disconnected, DACA-eligible youth—a majority of whom hail from Latin American countries—to community-based education programs, allowing them to apply for work permits and develop their skills so they can be successful at work. 

At the community level, these new funds created a major increase in capacity for community-based organizations (CBOs) and CUNY campuses to offer adult literacy and English as a Second Language (ESOL) programs.  Many CBOs used these resources to broadly expand their educational programs serving out of school young adults, helping them build their skills, get their high school equivalency, and even move into job-training programs.

Yet the mayor’s new budget proposes to repurpose these crucial funds away from education and training and into legal and other services for immigrants.  More than 4,000 young people would lose educational services, a major blow to their chances of getting back on track.   While we applaud all efforts to help immigrants, this is a clear example of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Restoring these DACA funds back into educational programs for out-of-school youth will prevent us from moving backwards.  But we also need to see some steps forward.  I propose that the new Center for Youth Employment spend this year working with advocates and CBOs to design an ambitious new initiative to reconnect 25,000 opportunity youth to jobs that will put them on a pathway to sustainable careers.

There are plenty of ways for this to happen: an expansion of existing internship and transitional job programs, which are already oversubscribed would be a simple and valuable start.  Another effort might target the tens of thousands of youth who graduate high school each year but do not start college in the fall, nor are able to find jobs. Even more creative would be to design a new program aimed at those young people who drop out of high school.  When those youth are discharged from their schools, the City essentially forfeits a set of state and federal dollars that we can draw down.  What if we were to allow certified community-based groups to reach out to recent dropouts to keep them engaged in alternative education programs, linked to internships and other supports, and eventually move them back into the school system? 

This is an approach that cities like Los Angeles and Denver are already using.  It will require some creativity, but I can’t see why we would not explore how it could work here. After all, the next fiscal year’s budget is just around the corner.

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