2010 Stimulus Just another CUNY Graduate School of Journalism site

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Jobs Crisis for Teens


By Jordan Shakeshaft and Michael Cohen, New York City News Service

Simon Philipose, 23, enters applications for the SYEP program at the Chinese-American Planning Council in Lower Manhattan. (Photo credit: Jordan Shakeshaft)

After a full day of classes, 15-year-old Justice Coleman inhaled a cream cheese bagel with his friends from Port Richmond High School as they cracked jokes, ate snacks and gulped Snapples in front of a deli next to the Staten Island school.

Coleman prepared for September by applying for a job at the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), the city’s main summer jobs program for teens. But with just five weeks left in the school year, he still hasn’t heard back.

“I want a job for next year,” he said early this month. “So I can buy clothes and school supplies.”

The federal government has poured tens of millions of stimulus dollars into summer jobs for teens in New York City. But still, Coleman and tens of thousands of other city kids may spend their summers much like their after-school unwinding – hanging around the local deli.

Their plight underscores one of the biggest problems with stimulus funding as the program progresses into its second year. Stimulus funds are already running out for teens this summer – and the recession isn’t.

“We basically plowed most of the stimulus money into the program last year,” said Ryan Dodge, a spokesman for the Department of Youth and Community Development, the city agency in charge of SYEP. “We hope to get more federal help.”

The SYEP got $36 million in stimulus funds for teen jobs last year but has just $8 million left. The publicly funded program, which selects applicants 14 to 24 years of age by a random lottery, can employ 24,000 young people this summer — less than half the 52,000 who got jobs last year.

About a mile from Port Richmond, 15-year-old Parris Spann and his mother Vergie walked into the office of Staten Island’s SYEP provider, United Activities Unlimited, and rolled the dice for a summer job through an online application. The job means as much to his mother as it does to him.

“Most of all I want him to learn to be independent, manage his own money, and do something positive in the work field,” said Ms. Spann. “I hope he’ll be able to give me a little break, and take some of the slack off me.”

But Brian Licata, director of United Activities Unlimited, told them the chances were slim.

“It’s disheartening,” said Licata. “We get so many kids that come in, and not only do they want the job, they need the job.”

The blame lays at the feet of state and local government. Faced with a $9.2 billion deficit, Gov. Paterson plans to cut all funding for summer youth jobs when his budget is passed. Last year, DYCD received $19.5 million from the state for SYEP.

Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed budget, released in May, provides $10 million for the program, almost $4 million less than the city provided last year. He had planned to cut even more, but put it back in at the last minute.

In Manhattan, directors at the Chinese-American Planning Council are encouraged by the additional funds, but anticipate major downsizing to their program this summer. The organization, based on the Lower East Side, placed 800 young people in jobs across Flushing, Lower Manhattan and Sunset Park last year, but anticipates having just 160 spots this year, said director Peter Chang.

“It’s hard-hitting because a lot of young people do not get the experience of earning money, which is different from volunteering and interning,” Chang said. “The most valuable thing about the SYEP program is the experience.”

Tiffany Li, a junior at LaGuardia High School, is counting on finding work through the SYEP program to start saving up for her school’s senior trip to Italy next year. Li, 17, was selected the past two summers, but knows that with fewer available spots this year, the odds are against her.

“I hate asking my parents for money. They have worked so hard for me,” said Li, an aspiring psychologist. “I want to make my own money and be independent. It’s all up to me to do that.”

Another two-time SYEP participant, Dan Tran, 17, admits that while he still hasn’t mastered the art of saving money, the program has helped him build a resume he can be proud of. As a summer docent at the Museum of American Finance last year, the high school senior was eventually responsible for leading tours around the museum.

“That was the first professional job I had,” Tran said. “I had real responsibilities, and it helped me discover what I wanted to be when I grow up – something business related for sure.”

Tran hopes the SYEP program will place him at the CPC offices this summer, where he can learn how the not-for-profit sector operates. But the cuts to the SYEP may affect non-profit operations as well.

The Children’s Arts and Science Workshops in the Bronx is a youth center that places teens in jobs at non-profits around the city. Program coordinator Sigry Vidal said the downsizing of the SYEP program will hurt her clients as well.

“Many of our work sites may not receive the participants they requested to help run their programs,” Vidal said.

Rosa Pascual, of the Isabella Geriatric Center, a nearby senior center, said the agency got 120 teens through the SYEP program last year. This summer, she’s expecting teen employment cuts significant enough to strain the facility’s services.

“We will need to reduce the program offerings we can offer in the summer,” Pascual said. “We will also need to curtail staff vacation schedules because we will not have the help needed to permit many staff members to take off at the same time.”

Back on Staten Island, most of the kids in front of the deli with Coleman are also entering the SYEP lottery — further competition for a job. But he said he has a back-up plan.

“I’ll probably just cut grass for the summer,” he said. “Doing yard work for other people.”

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