Congressman Has Billion-Dollar Vision For Youth Summer Jobs

Summer vacation holds all manner of possibilities for young people. They can spend the months productively, learning new skills that will help them down the road. Or they can idle away the hours — and spend them getting into trouble. The difference between the two scenarios, for many young people, is the availability of summer jobs. Missouri Democratic Congressman Emanuel Cleaver and Blair Hamilton Taylor, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Urban League join host Michel Martin to discuss a proposal to direct $1 billion towards the creation of 300,000 summer youth jobs.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

First of all, I want to thank Allison Keyes and Tony Cox for sitting in while I was away, my staff and colleagues for all of their support and the listeners for all of their kind and thoughtful words during these last few weeks.

And with that being said, we are thinking about graduation and we are wondering, where will young people find jobs in one of the worst markets in decades, especially for younger workers? Today we're going to talk first about summer jobs, that temporary work that helps keeps students through the next few months and keeps them out of possible trouble.

Coming up, we'll look into finding that first job out of college when rent, student loan payments and putting food on the table are all up to the new graduate. Two financial experts are here to offer help for those heading out into the real world.

First, though, a billion dollar summer jobs initiative is being debated in Congress. We want to tell you about that. It's supposed to help create 300,000 summer jobs across the country in a period for young workers that the Economic Policy Institute is calling, quote, "the worst year, very likely, since the Great Depression."

Congressman Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri is a vocal supporter of spending federal money to get more people aged 14 to 24 into summer jobs. We'll speak with him, along with Blair Hamilton Taylor, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Urban League. It works directly with young people hoping to find summer or more permanent work, and they're both with us now. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Representative EMANUEL CLEAVER (Democrat, Missouri): Good to be with you.

Mr. BLAIR HAMILTON TAYLOR (President and CEO, Los Angeles Urban League): Good to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: Mr. Taylor, I'll start with you. You're on the front lines, if you want to call it that. On your best day, what's been your ideal scenario for getting kids to work in L.A. in the summer? Can you just give me some sense of what percentage of kids you've been able to see placed in summer work? What percentage get jobs out of how many want jobs, something like that.

Mr. TAYLOR: Well, this is such a critical topic at such a critical time. And obviously right now those percentages are significantly falling. The stats are actually pretty sobering right now. If you look - if you stop and think about only 25 percent of youth who are seeking employment are actually employed. That's down from about 37 percent five years ago.

If you go into some of the ethnic breakouts, it looks even worse. Only about 16 percent or so of African-American youth are employed. This is a critical time for our nation and certainly for urban regions across the country. As we roll into summer months, we start to look at the possibility of young people being out without anything to do over the summer months. That has a significant impact, as you mentioned in your lead in, with respect to crime. It has a significant impact with respect to personal growth. And quite frankly, it's a very, very important strategic issue for this country in the long term.

As we think about the United States of America, we want our youth engaged. We want them growing and developed. And this - hopefully this bill, which I'm very, very supportive of, I think is going to move us in the right direction toward getting approximately 300,000 of those young people fully engaged with summer employment.

MARTIN: Mr. Taylor, I'm going to come back to you and ask you just to tell me a little bit more about why you think it's so important that young people find jobs because there are those who would argue, well, it's really more important that their parents find jobs.

So I want you to hold that thought in just a minute, but I want to bring Congressman Cleaver in. Thank you for joining us. Now, the bill as I understand it, if approved, the localities that receive federal funding would be encouraged to give priority to those who are, quote, "most in need." What does that mean?

Rep. CLEAVER: Well, we are going to approve this summer jobs program for the most needy individuals. And these young people who qualify are people who would essentially need to qualify under the TANF provision, which is Temporary Systems for Needy Families. And so there are some economic guidelines.

In Kansas City, for example, a family that earned $24,000 or less, a family of four, would qualify. So these are really needy kids who are going to get the jobs. But something new this year, if this legislation is approved, is that we will go we will be able to provide jobs for young people 16 to 24. That takes into account people who might've just graduated from college, but cannot go into the traditional job market for college graduates because the jobs are simply not there.

And so, this bill has been approved by the House this past week. And it is now over in the Senate where we hope that it will not languish, because if it does, we will have extremely angry municipal leaders because these programs take time to gear up. And if the dollars are not available quickly, we're going to be into July. And if we're into July and it takes three or four weeks to get geared up, the program is going to be virtually useless.

So we'll have 300,000 jobs for this summer. The House version approved these 300,000 jobs for this summer and one billion dollars over a 10-year period. We pushed for 1.5 billion. But we obviously had to express some satisfaction that we were able to get as far as we have.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about a proposal within a larger jobs bill moving to the Senate next week. It's a proposal to direct a billion dollars in federal funding toward the creation of a 300,000 - youth summer jobs.

We're speaking with Representative Emanuel Cleaver, Democrat of Missouri, and Blair Hamilton Taylor, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Urban League and they're talking about how that money would be spent.

Congressman, before I go back to Mr. Taylor, two criticisms, if you will, of this. On the one hand, a billion dollars sounds like a lot. It would be a lot to you and me, but some people are saying 300,000 summer jobs is not really that significant.

On the other hand, some are saying a billion dollars on top of the federal funds that have already been spent for the stimulus, adding to the deficit at this time is just bad economic policy. So, would you address those two points?

Rep. CLEAVER: Absolutely. The Congressional Black Caucus, of which I am the chair of the jobs task force appointed by Congresswoman Barbara Lee of Oakland, pushed for one million jobs. And even then, that would've been woefully inadequate, we believe. But one million jobs would have been at least the minimum amount that we believe we needed for this summer, based on the economic conditions.

And we also were able to get this jobs bill as far as it has traveled legislatively because it is has been deemed an emergency. And emergency spending does not require an offset. It's not a PAYGO piece of legislation. And it is an emergency. Let me just throw one hypothetical situation out to you before Mr. Blair comes back on the phone.

Look at this situation. If all of these young people show up at the employment bureau, state employment bureaus, over the next six week period, they will not get jobs. So, what is that going to do? When the unemployment figures come out for the next month, it's going to show a dramatic increase in unemployment. And that will in all probability kick unemployment over 10 percent. When that happens, it will discourage employers who are beginning to believe that maybe the economy is changing and I guess I'll give a little more consideration to hiring.

If unemployment goes back over 10 percent, many employers are going to come to the conclusion, look, this recession is not over and we are not about to go out and hire people. So it could do some enormous damage to the entire economy.

MARTIN: And, Blair Hamilton Taylor, let's bring you back into the conversation. Would you pick up on this whole question of why having a targeted program specifically for younger workers is in your view important. Because the Urban League works with people at all ends of the employment spectrum. Okay. So there are those who would say it's really more important to help the parents of these young people, to try to give them sort of a more stable environment that, you know, with young people maybe it's nice to do, but not essential to do. If you'd give your perspective on that.

Mr. TAYLOR: Sure, Michel. I would argue that that's not an either/or, that's a both/and. And the fact of the matter is that in many situations now you have households that the income of the young person in that household is highly important to that household, particularly when you think about the impact of the recent recession on household net worth and household income.

Many of the adults are unemployed. So if a young person can get a job, that can be a significant offset. I would also position and argue that this is a tremendously important element in terms of keeping our youth active and engaged during the summer months. If you look at, statistically speaking, what happens, especially with urban young people, they tend to fall off in the summer months, meaning that they can get in trouble with crime. There are things that can be happening in their neighborhoods that can be a distraction for them in their lives. We've got to keep them fully engaged.

And there's also a compelling argument that's emerging now with respect to just keeping people engaged in a thoughtful way during the summer months actually helps them to grow. And so if you stop and think about some of the educational gaps that we have where young people from high income communities are going on and going to Europe over the summer or going to vacation with their family or staying engaged in some thoughtful and meaningful way.

We don't want our young people in urban population centers and low income rural centers across this country to not stay thoughtfully involved and engaged over the summer months. That helps them to grow and actually helps position them better when they come back to school at a future point.

And the last thing I'd just say, Michel, real quickly is we need our young people to learn skills in the 21st century. This country, in order for it to be competitive, must have young people who are growing, who are learning the workforce skills. This isn't just an urban issue, this is an American issue.

If we don't get these young people on the pathway to growth, to understanding how the workforce is, to learning the soft skills that they need, our country will suffer in the 21st century because we just won't have a competitive workforce. So this bill, as the congressman said and as he's been pushing it and I'm very supportive of it myself, is a very, very important step in that direction.

MARTIN: Congressman, I'm sorry, we only have about 40 seconds left, and I apologize for that. But is there any argument you could make to employers if this money doesn't come through, if the Senate doesn't pass this bill, about why they should try to hire young people anyway?

Rep. CLEAVER: I think we'll make that argument realizing that most employers are simply not going to go out and hire people. The bill is in the Senate, the fate of so many has been left to so few, but we can't expect people to go out and start hiring. And if they don't, I think we're going to have some difficulties this summer. The youth today are the same as they were 50 years ago, except they have better weapons.

MARTIN: Oh, dear.

Rep. CLEAVER: And I think that's problematic for all of us.

MARTIN: Congressman Emanuel Cleaver is a Democrat. He represents he's from Missouri. He's a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. He spoke to us from NPR member station KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri. Congressman, thank you for joining us.

Rep. CLEAVER: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: Blair Hamilton Taylor is president and CEO of the Los Angeles Urban League and he joined us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Mr. Taylor, thank you for joining us.

Mr. TAYLOR: Thank you, Michel.

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