PHOTO: Loretta Smith with SummerWorks interns Chatori Thorn, 16, (left) of Madison High School and Handfull Mervis, 17 of Beaverton High School.
Loretta Smith didn't sleep the night before the launch of the SummerWorks youth job training program. Smith has championed the program since she was elected to her first term as Multnomah County Commissioner.
"I do it because I care about the kids," she said at the launch event, July 1.
"I care about the future and as (former state Senator) Margaret Carter says, I want to get my social security check, and I need you all to work."
Smith says she's thrilled to see youth learning about the county's work, But excitement was not what kept her awake Monday night. She simply could not stop thinking about Andrew L. Coggins, the young black man killed in a drive-by shooting, Monday afternoon in North Portland. She could not stop thinking about the pain and grief his family is feeling.
"For me it was very personal," Smith said. "This was a 24-year-old man. I have a 24-year-old son. There's a mother and a family who are crying today about their son."
Programs like SummerWorks, which employs youth from deprived backgrounds, are crucial to preventing violence and crime, Smith said.
"We need to put down the guns, pick up the pens, the papers, the books and get summer jobs like we do here in SummerWorks."
This year SummerWorks will employ 600 youth, 100 more than last year, but less than half the number funded in 2009, when federal economic recovery funds created the youth jobs program.
For the youth who are hired, the internships will open up opportunities to learn, find mentors, network and be first in line for Future Connect college scholarships. It will also put money in their pockets, in many cases for the first time.
At the same time, thousands more youth are out of school and facing a summer of no jobs, no money, no transportation and no opportunity to change their situation.
Worksytems estimates that across Multnomah and Washington counties 36,000 youth aged 16-19 are out of school and not in work. In Multnomah County alone, between 6,000 -- 7,000 of those disconnected youth have no high school credential.
Across the Portland-metro region the overall employment rate for youth is 27 percent, meaning one in four youth have a job. But for Black males aged 16-19 the employment rate is just 12 percent.
"That's an unemployment rate of almost 90 percent," said Heather Fitch of WorkSystems. "It's disgraceful."
That figure is just one of many statistics that show Black youth are failing to thrive in Multnomah County. It's why Mayor Hales has set aside 25 of the city's 100 internships for African American males.
Hales also is throwing his weight behind the Black Male Achievement initiative, a new effort to link Black boys to opportunities and support.
“There are several ways we as a community have failed the African American youth — education, employment, incarceration rates,” Hales said. “These internships help level the playing field in a key performance measure, employment. This program provides a leg up. It’s a small step, but a good one.”
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden also spoke at the launch, pointing to the destructive impact of poverty.
"What I can tell you is that we know that crime feeds on poverty, despair and a lack of hope," he said. "We know that for certain. And that's where SummerWorks steps in, because it is an antidote to that kind of poverty and that despair and that sense of hopelessness."
PHOTO: Commissioner Smith, (pictured with youth) Portland Mayor Charlie Hales, Sen. Ron Wyden, and Worksystems executive director Andrew McGough spoke to youth at the SummerWorks launch event, July 1. Worksystems Inc. contributes one-third of the program's funds through federal workforce development grants. Multnomah County and the City of Portland contribute another third. The rest comes from private employers.
Wyden said SummerWorks can be a model for the country, showing how government and business can work together to train the next generation of workers, break the cycle of poverty and teach young people the value of work.
"I want to showcase for the federal government this program, because the federal government has got to be a better and smarter partner in the job training space."
Now chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, Wyden said what employers need most are educated and trained people.
" The single most important thing we need to do as a community, a state and a country is to make sure that we get the high-skill, high-wage jobs."
Getting on track for college and career is no problem for students whose families can link them to jobs, or pay for tutoring, cultural activities or travel. But poor students lack the family stability and support to help them stay in school and on track for career success.
And youth in Multnomah County are among the most deprived in the country.
As the county's new poverty report shows, one in three county residents are teetering on the edge of survival.
According to the poverty report 238,419 people in the county are living at or below the official federal poverty level. And another 114,985 people are living at less than 185 percent of poverty, so poor they qualify for food stamps and other safety net help.
More than 34,000 of the poorest county residents are under 18. And another 25,000 are aged 18- 26. About 9,000 of those young people in poverty are parenting their own children. Take a look at maps from the Coalition for a Livable Future's Equity Atlas and several trends emerge.
Gentrification has pushed poor minority communities east, away from the urban center and out toward the edges of Multnomah County. The maps show the highest poverty areas are also where the highest numbers of Black and other minority families live. Those areas also overlap with areas police have identified as "crime hotspots."
A study on the impact of gentrification published in the Journal of Urban Health in May 2011, (Serial Forced Displacement in American Cities, 1916–2010), found a pattern of problems emerges.
“At present, a persistent policy of serial forced displacement of African Americans has created a persistent de facto internal refugee population that expresses characteristic behavioral and health patterns," the researchers found.
"These include raised levels of violence, family disintegration, substance abuse, sexually transmitted disease, and so on. These harms are evidently a result of the cumulative effects—including high levels of stress—of multiple displacements.”
PHOTO: Heather Ficht of Worksystems with Israel Hammond, 18. Hammond will be placed at the city's Water Treatment Bureau. Hammond says he wants to be an engineer, a youth mentor and entrepreneur. He will attend George Fox University this fall.
Commissioner Smith wants to put more resources into prevention. This spring she persuaded her fellow commissioners to allocate $1 million to pay for cradle to career supports for the county's most vulnerable children. She hopes that the money will help the county apply for a grant through President Obama's Promise Neighborhoods program. But even if the grant doesn't work, she says, the money will be well spent.
"What we know is that prevention works, and if we can put 400 kids through a cradle to career structure that goes all the way to college and beyond, then we’ll be able to save some kids," she says. "My goal is that we at least serve 80 percent of those kids. And if they don’t go on the adjudicated (criminal) side, it’s a win."
The fall in youth employment is part of a national trend. Research from the State of Oregon Employment Department, Endangered: Youth in the Labor Force, reports that unemployment rates for all youth rose during the recession and have not fallen.
“Young people ages 16 to 24 make up 13 percent of the labor force, but accounted for 29 percent of Oregon’s unemployed in 2013,” the report says. “One out of four teenagers in Oregon who would like a job is not able to find one.”
National figures estimate overall unemployment rates are 22.9 percent for teens 16-19 years. But for Black youth the rate is 38.8 percent.