Martha Ross is Deputy Director of Greater Washington Research at Brookings. She’ll be starting to post about some important issues to our region and Brookings’ policy analysis. Welcome Martha!

Summer’s almost here and with it will come another DC summer youth jobs program. Youth employment programs can play a constructive role in young people’s lives: connecting them to the world of work, teaching interpersonal and occupational skills, and serving as a springboard for the future.

But that is not the summer jobs program we have here. The District’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) can charitably be called “uneven.” Although some youth have positive experiences every summer, that’s due to the individual initiative of host sites, not by design or oversight.

Last summer’s program had well-publicized problems that led to a $30 million overrun and the firing of the agency’s director. A few key decisions, like not putting a cap on enrollment and extending the length of the program from six weeks to 10 weeks, overwhelmed the Department of Employment Services (DOES). (See reports on last summer’s experience here and here. Even before SYEP expanded in 2008 to over 21,000 youth, DOES did not administer a consistently high-quality program. Last summer was not the first time young people got paid to do nothing or had trouble getting paid the correct amount.

Now, Mayor Fenty is requesting an additional $20 million for this summer’s youth employment program, bringing the total cost of the program to $45 million. Especially in a tough budget environment, this is a lot of money. It’s one thing to make big investments in programs likely to generate good outcomes, but quite another to make big investments in programs with uncertain and sometimes poor outcomes. The overrun is entirely predictable, since the $23 million originally allocated for the 2009 SYEP assumed about 15,000 participants for six weeks, but the administration subsequently chose to open enrollment to all (an anticipated 21,000 youth) for ten weeks. Wages alone for 21,000 participants will cost $33 million. The city could probably stay within or close to its original budget by cutting the program from 10 weeks back to five or six weeks.

The FY 2010 budget allocates $43 million to SYEP and $9 million towards year-round youth employment programs. If the city is serious about helping youth, it should beef up its year-round programs. Youth don’t only need guidance, support and skill-building in the summer months. Program slots for “disconnected youth” — young people aged 16-24 out of school and out of work — are in especially short supply and are in especially high demand. In 2007, the Department of Employment Services served 357 in-school youth and 290 out-of-school youth in year-round programs, for a grant total of 647. Meanwhile, Vinnie Schiraldi, the Director of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, estimates there are almost 3,000 disconnected youth in the city.

The city is to be applauded for setting a bold goal to help youth with a robust summer program. But it needs to align its vision with budgetary realities and its administrative capacity. It is irresponsible to put $43 million toward SYEP given its track record. In budgeting for the 2010 effort, the agency should decide how many youth it can serve in a high-quality program — certainly far fewer than 21,000, and probably fewer than 15,000 participants. It can then focus on making the improvements needed to ensure a successful experience for participants, like engaging employers to develop quality placements, getting youth work-ready, and improving program administration.

Then, the city should direct the remainder of the funds towards year-round programs with a focus on disconnected youth. It should release a request for proposals for programs that serve youth and young adults with a combination of occupational skills training, basic skills education, work readiness services, and maybe stipends for participants.