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By Helen Silvis of The Skanner News
Published: 24 January 2013

 The City of Portland has axed $379,000 in funding for a program targeted at preventing school dropout, closing the achievement gap and keeping some of the city's poorest students in school and out of trouble. And Mayor Hales is under fire for his decision.

The Summer Youth Connect program identified students most at risk of dropping out as early as 8th grade, and offered them academic support, paid internships, and exposure to college and career planning resources.  

In 2012, 1,650 students received academic and career support through Summer Youth Connect. Around 96 percent of them came from low-income families, and more than 70 percent were youth of color.

Intended to prevent crime, reduce generational poverty and build the future workforce, the programs have shown success in keeping students on track for graduation, college and careers. Heather Ficht, who manages the Summer Works youth employment program at WorkSystems, says the costs of not employing youth will be higher, since young people with no money and nothing to do all summer are more likely to get involved in minor crimes, for example, riding the max without a ticket.

Hales told The Skanner News that the cuts were necessary to cover a projected $25 million shortfall.

"I love this program and this is a very hard cut to make," Hales said. "But we have a very large hole in our budget that we have to fill. So as soon as we got here we started looking at everything. We looked at our own staff and we reduced it from 25 people to 14, to save around $600,000 a year. We're  going to be pretty relentless in looking everywhere in terms of short-term cuts that we have to make, in order to balance the budget.

"The best way for the City of Portland to move forward is to right our ship and be on a stable long-term course. And we're not now. We're not on course."

Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith says her phone has been ringing off the hook with complaints since the cuts were announced.  

"I just think it's unfortunate to balance the budget on the backs of young people," she says. "I wish he would reconsider because this is a great program. I have seen how it changes the lives of young men and women. It's been successful and we are still going to make it a priority."

Smith is a strong supporter of the Summer Works internship program. Creating 25, county-funded youth internships was one of Smith's first acts as a commissioner in 2011. In 2012 she added 25 more county-funded positions, and she hoped to add another 25 in 2013. But the bulk of last year's positions, 96 of 315, were funded by the city, at a cost of $200,000.

Across Multnomah and Washington counties, 17,000 youth are eligible for the program. 

Kari Chisholm, co-founder of the Democrat blog, Blue Oregon, says Hales is breaking his first campaign promise.

"Never mind that those programs keep young people off the streets, create a pathway to long-term employment, and set a bunch of kids on the right path. Never mind that it's good policy," Chisholm writes.

"What's interesting to me is that Hales specifically promised to protect - nay, expand - these programs should he become mayor."

Chisholm goes on to quote from Hales campaign website:

"We need to increase job opportunities and workforce training to people living in poverty. Nationally, cities that do not have enough available jobs have the highest youth crime rates. Youths living in poverty often choose to go down the wrong path because they see no other opportunities. I would like to expand Mayor Adam's successful Summer Youth Connect program, which helps kids figure out potential career interests, provides job readiness training, targets academic skill-building, and provides 180 hours of paid work experience."

Former Mayor Sam Adams, who championed the city's youth program, issued a statement, saying he won't immediately comment on his successor's decisions, "at least for the next couple months."

But Adams did offer his take on the city's budget shortfall, which he says is driven by three factors:

The Department of Justice finding that Portland Police Bureau violated the civil rights of citizens with mental illness, and the $5.4 million annual cost to remedy the problem.

Creation of the new Library District, which will reduce the city's property tax income by $10 million.

Cuts to the general fund of $8.6 million, necessary to cover future projected maintenance and facilities expenses.

Summer Works' students come from struggling families -- 87 percent were youth of color and 97 percent were low-income. For some students the money meant a lot more than just bus fare and school clothes, Smith notes.

"The money she (an intern) earned over the summer helped her parents pay rent, and PGE bills," Smith says of one of her interns. "Her mother was unemployed. A lot of these kids need jobs over the summer because they need to help their families."

Once students are 16, their families do not receive child tax credit. Nor do they qualify for the Earned Income Tax credit.

Heather Ficht, director of youth workforce investment for WorkSystems, the jobs agency that has been managing the summer works program, says the cuts are happening during a time of unprecedented crisis. Pathways to work have disappeared, especially for low-income and minority youth, she says.

"Only one in four kids has a job," Ficht says. "In communities of color it's as low as one in 10. So 90 percent of those kids aren't going to school and aren't working in the summer. That is a huge crisis. We've never had such a low labor participation rate --since it's been recorded in WWII."

Other cities, such as Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, have invested heavily in similar programs.  In Los Angeles the Chamber of Commerce runs the youth employment program, which last year served 4,000 students.  About 60 employers fund those internships, said Marie Nieto, director of education and workforce development for the Los Angeles chamber. The city funds two pre-internship training programs.

"Employers are always more than happy to participate," she says. "We have established relationships with a number of companies including Kaiser Permanente and Wells Fargo bank."

Hartford, Conn., a city of under 125,000 people, but with a poverty rate of close to 33 percent, puts $1.5 million into its summer youth employment program. Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra has expanded the program.

Fitch says it only makes sense that young people with no money and no productive activity, are at high risk of getting into trouble.

 "It's a prevention strategy, if you do the math," she says.  "You impact 1,300 young people's summer experience. If  they don't have opportunity to do something constructive, then what are they going to do with their time?

"I don't think it's a big leap to think that there is going to be more (crime) … anything from more tagging and graffiti to worse things..."

 "How much time is that going to take from our public safety officers and distract them from the important work they have, and then processing these kids through the system," Ficht says. "Really is that the best way?"

At the same time, Fitch says 50,000 retiring workers are expected to leave the Portland-metro workforce in the next five years.

Summer Works helped young people see career opportunities and provided a valuable service to employers, Ficht says.  About 95 percent of students successfully completed their internships, and 95 percent continued in school or college.

"It's really important that we are being strategic in preparing the next generation for participation in the workforce. Also it's a really good opportunity to increase diversity in the workforce. "

Ficht says the Summer Works program will continue, but, without the City dollars, she'll be looking for more support from other sources.  Smith too says she'll be issuing a call to employers, and others, to consider funding Summer Works internships. Smith also hopes a federal jobs program with work training funds may pass Congress. She points out that, in 2009, the American Recovery Act funded 1000 summer jobs for Portland youth. Last year a jobs bill proposed by President Obama failed to pass.

Dan Ryan, CEO of All Hands Raised, which coordinates the 9th Grade Counts program, said he understood the difficulty of meeting budget, but is grateful that Hales has committed to stay at the table.  

As for Mayor Hales, he promises to look for other funding sources.

"I will go out of my way to help find other funding for this particular program that WorkSystems has been managing for us because we know its value. And I believe in youth employment and I understand its value as a crime prevention strategy, and everything else.

"They've got to have those resources, but what funds those resources? Is it the city? Is it the nonprofit sector? Is it business? It's going to be some of each and I'm going to be going,  for example, to the nonprofit and business community and asking them to do more in our hour of need."

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