David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

No one will escape the pain of the coronavirus economic slowdown. No age group, however, will be challenged like New York City’s teenagers. This epic once-in-a-generation crisis has changed their world, interrupting their education, cratering the job market and likely crippling their family finances.

Mayor Bill de Blasio ignored this reality by cancelling the $124 million Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) which provided 75,000 young people six weeks of work experience and a potentially important source of household income for lower-income families. It’s baffling that this mayor, who claims to care deeply about poverty and inequality, would take this step without at least considering alternatives, or consulting with nonprofits and program providers.

But instead, SYEP was completely eliminated (a 100 percent cut), while other programs and agencies received cuts in the five percent range. The cynic might say City Hall put a red line through the youth jobs budget because there would not be much protest. The COVID-19 pandemic precludes the traditional pushback we see when critical community programs are cut: rallies on the steps of City Hall, news conferences, protest marches and the like.

But attention must be paid. My organization, the Community Service Society of New York, joins dozens of city non-profits in demanding that the mayor reestablish this vital program.

SYEP is arguably the most vital program the city operates for young people. Surely, we can come up with an innovative and safe way to keep tens of thousands of young New Yorkers busy and productive, such as delivering meals to the elderly and working at food banks. What about enlisting the tech industry to help set up job-training programs youth can participate in remotely? Or, how about simply giving them a $500 stipend to help their families put bread on the table, just as CUNY recently announced it would do for their students?

Consider that New York City summer youth jobs cater to teens of color from low-income families in high-poverty neighborhoods who experience the greatest difficulties in finding employment and the lack of a “social network” to land jobs. An average of 125,000 apply each year, and the 75,000 slots available are distributed by lottery.

The de Blasio Administration argues that SYEP could not operate safely and efficiently this summer due to COVID-19. But that’s not true. Program providers were already working with the Division of Youth & Community Development (DYCD) to administer the program and develop remote learning plans with COVID-19 in mind.

This week nearly 17 million Americans filed for unemployment. Economists estimate the current U.S. unemployment rate to be 13 percent, the worst since the Great Depression. Before the coronavirus, U.S. youth unemployment hovered at 11 percent in February 2020 — and non-white youth experienced even higher jobless rates, Bureau of Labor Statistics figure show. At that time this figure equaled more than three times the unemployment rate for all U.S. workers, a ratio that has changed little since the Great Recession, when the youth unemployment peaked at 19.6 percent, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

The current group of Americans ages 6- to 21-year-olds, are the most racially and ethnically diverse cohort of our population, according to the Pew Research Center. Their parents lived through the Great Recession and now face the double whammy of the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. The economic crisis is certain to impact their professional lives and those of their teenaged children. Carnegie Mellon researchers concluded that negative effects of entering the job market during a major economic crisis early on in a person’s professional life can last for the next 20 years.

By providing hands-on experience, developing soft skills, and expanding access to career mentors, summer jobs programs can equip youth – even amid the current challenges – with the means to transition from school into the labor market. And it provides them with something to do, which has clear benefits for youth and their families.

A paper published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics found that NYC’s summer youth program reduced the probability of incarceration and mortality from homicides, suicides, and accidents.

Today’s young people deserve as much help as they can get to avoid being consigned to poverty and a shortage of job opportunities in the wake of the pandemic. The net benefits alone are worth the effort of finding a way to keep six weeks of youth employment alive in New York City. We call on the mayor to find a way to fund this vital program.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 175 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.