Summer options for New York City’s youth could be a little less grim if the state releases funding aimed at helping low-income families, as it has in years past.
Federal block grants given to the state could finance stipends for about 15,000 slots for the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program, according to multiple sources. But state officials, facing a budget crisis, haven’t decided whether they’ll release that money, leaving program operators, thousands of city youth, and City Hall in limbo as the June 30 deadline for passing a city budget fast approaches.
“We have been just trying to get any piece of information and try to piece something together,” said Tatiana Arguello, director of workforce development for Staten Island-based Unlimited Activities United, which provides day camps and summer youth jobs. “I feel like we have done everything we can without having actual word.”
The city announced in April it would cancel the program, which last summer offered minimum wage jobs and stipends to about 74,500 young people, ages 14 - 24. Many participants rely on the jobs to help contribute financially to their households, and were hoping to have the income — on top of the skills training — as job losses mount due to the coronavirus. Some 85% of last year’s participants reported coming from families with incomes of $31,000 or less, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said that concerns about coronavirus forced his hand at axing the program despite program providers saying they could create remote options. The mayor later acknowledged that budgetary concerns were also a factor as the city faces about $9 billion in lost revenue. Public pressure has mounted to reinstate the program, and city officials have since said they’re trying to establish a virtual alternative for this summer through local coffers, but the state funding would greatly expand the number of slots.
State legislators wrote a letter to de Blasio in April reminding him that state funds that come from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF, help pay for youth jobs programs statewide. The city, they wrote, could anticipate about $23 million in funding for the summer jobs program, similar to the previous fiscal year, since the state budget included about $45 million for such programs statewide.
Now, it’s unclear whether these programs across New York will see that funding.
Typically, by this time of year, the city is notified whether it will receive this portion of state funding for the summer jobs program, according to a City Hall official. As of Wednesday afternoon, the city was still awaiting any word from the state.
As the state faces its own multi-billion-dollar shortfall, officials are still deciding how to best use this money, according to Freeman Klopott, a spokesman for the state’s budget division.
The legislature gave Gov. Andrew Cuomo the power to make periodic budget cuts for the coming fiscal year if revenue falls short of what’s expected. Such cuts, Cuomo has warned, could be sweeping if more federal stimulus dollars don’t come through. Congress is currently debating additional stimulus spending.
“We are facing unprecedented health and economic crises, and we must ensure the limited resources the state has available are deployed to meet newly emerging needs,” Klopott said in a statement. “We are developing a plan to target these funds appropriately.” He declined to answer specific questions about the TANF funds.
Teenage and adult advocates have pushed the city to pay for the jobs program by pulling funding from other places, such as the NYPD. The mayor gave into that demand following recent public protests against racist policing, but he’s offered no details on how much of that would go toward youth services. Earlier this month de Blasio announced a partnership to give about 2,700 young people paid learning opportunities. The City Council has also identified $1 billion in potential cuts to the NYPD, but those details also remain murky.
“We are working with the City Council, along with private and philanthropic partners, to find ways to provide valuable opportunities for our young adults this summer,” said Laura Feyer, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office.
Meanwhile, providers and young adults have been waiting for months on any concrete news for the program.
“Taking away [the summer jobs programs] is taking away a chance for happiness and success for thousands of students like me,” wrote Christian Flores, a 16-year-old Brooklyn student who participated in the program last year, in a first-person piece for Chalkbeat. “I know times are hard right now, but sacrificing a program as valuable as [this] would be sacrificing too much.”
Many providers have spent the last several months developing virtual programming in case funding comes through, while some have also raised private funds to buoy their summer offerings.
Programs need a “long window or runway” to start up, typically starting in spring, said Matthew Phifer, vice president of education and employment services at Henry Street Settlement. That institution on Manhattan’s Lower East Side is hoping to serve about 400 of its typical 1,900 youth this summer.
As time runs out, many questions remain if funding comes through: Will student applications from the spring, prior to cancellation, be reactivated, or will more students be allowed to apply before the program starts? Will programs be able to bring back enough of their laid-off employees, given that some may have moved on to other work or are potentially making more through unemployment as they search for new jobs?
United Activities Unlimited has already laid off 160 part-time staffers, Arguello said. They were able to keep some full-time staff, who built virtual workforce and job training programs if money comes through.
“A lot of what we pride ourselves on is making sure we are providing free recreational and educational activities and experiences for our young people, and no one wants to charge for that,” Arguello said. “Our families are going through financial reckoning. You’re going to see agencies that may not be able to recover.”