If you're poor and 15 years old--particularly if you have a kid or a criminal record, or are behind in school--it's nearly impossible to get a job in Seattle. SYEP, which helps kids learn computer skills, and provides them work experience at minimum wage in a variety of fields, is one of the only programs around giving youngsters between the ages of 14 and 21 a leg up.
Rigo Rangel and Vanessa Madrigal, both 16, don't know what they'll do if they don't get into SYEP this summer. Rangel wants to become a computer programmer, but he needs help getting started. Though he dresses like a gang banger--buttoned-to-the-top Dickies shirt, with greased-back hair and a slim rat-tail--Rangel left Yakima last year to escape that world. He wants to finish high school, get a good job, and marry Madrigal--pretty ambitious for a boy whose facial hair hasn't grown in and whose girlfriend has scrawled "I heart you" on his hand. But Rigo has good reason to look ahead: two months ago Vanessa gave birth to his son.
Through SYEP, Rangel and Madrigal could finish up the credits they need to re-enter high school in the fall. And Rangel is psyched that the program could set him up with a computer internship. "I couldn't get that kind of work on my own," he says. "And even if I could, I couldn't afford to take a non-paying internship. But if I get that on my resume instead of a McDonald's job, employers will look at me differently."
Every year, program administrators estimate they turn away three kids for every one they're able to hire. SYEP administrator Pat Lemus says there are even more kids out there who don't even apply. "That's not a good indication of the need for service, because we only distribute a small number of applications. We know we can't serve that many people, so we don't flood youth centers and parks [with information and applications]."
Though this year's cuts would likely be reversed if unemployment rebounds (hardly something to wish for), social service agencies are worried that funding will be slashed again next year when Congress implements a new payout scheme. The last time that happened, in 1983, Ronald Reagan imposed "accountability" measures that encouraged training programs to focus more on the needs of businesses--shying away from anger management, say, in the name of teaching how to compute sales tax. Reagan also mandated the formation of Private Industry Councils, comprised of local businesspeople, to oversee SYEP. Lemus says these changes "decimated" SYEP--the number of kids served dropped from 3,500 to 2,000.
Youth employment programs have become nothing more than "machines that generate entry-level workforce fodder," complains one social service worker, who wishes to remain anonymous. "They get kids who have been so disenfranchised that they are tickled pink by the idea of a minimum wage job, and they give them enough skills to make them employable. They teach them to fill out a time sheet and behave appropriately at low-paying jobs, because someone has to do them."
Still, entry-level grunt work is better than nothing at all. Says SYEP director Nina Laboy, "[People] think it's such a good economy we don't need these kind of programs, but low-income kids live in a whole different world. It's not the world of Bill Gates, or even of moderate-income families."