Next month, a city-sponsored youth employment program will pay wages for 5,100 teenagers as they land jobs around the city, but a coalition of community groups says that’s not enough. The Full Employment Baltimore organization wants the summer Youth Works program to serve 9,000 youth – the same figure the group thought was sponsored in 2009. After a fact check, they learned the city only funded 7,100 youth that year and 5,000 last year.

Still, their message remains the same: fewer jobs for youth will be detrimental to Baltimore.

Before a taxpayer’s night budget hearing at the War Memorial Building May 18, the group protested for an hour, demanding more funding for youth jobs and for the city to reprioritize spending to promote youth empowerment rather than preparing youth for incarceration.

At the protest, Full Employment Baltimore, which is comprised of at least nine organizations and non-profit groups, carried placards calling for youth jobs, living wage employment and an end to construction on a proposed youth jail.

“We believe when the citizens of Baltimore are working … they will be less dependent on the government and charities,” Ralph Moore said. He’s one of the lead organizers for Full Employment Baltimore. “We need to save the city by saving our youth,” he said. “It will generate a stronger workforce in the future if today’s youth are used to getting paid now.”

Alexis Flanagan, director at the Safe and Sound Campaign, said it seems city government predicts Baltimore City residents will fail. She says the mayor’s budget allocates 11 times more funding to crime control than to the healthy development of children and youth: $265 million versus $24 million.

“If we invest in the success of our residents, it will reduce the need for crime and protection services,” Flanagan said. She wore a bright green shirt that read, “It’s About Opportunity – Invest in it.”

“We have to start to shift the way money is spent.”

The swelling crowd took the energy from the protest inside the War Memorial, relaying demands to city council members one-by-one. “Baltimore doesn’t work because its people don’t,” declared one man.

“A budget is a moral document and it shows where the city puts its priorities … obviously they aren’t with the youth,” said Maureem Daly.

Council members listened quietly to the comments, unable to respond directly.

Lester Davis, a spokesman for City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, said he fears constituents don’t understand that the council can only snip away at the mayor’s $2.7 billion budget, not allot more funding to a particular area. “If they want more youth jobs, I don’t think anyone on the council can disagree with that, they just can’t make that happen,” he said. “They can demand it, introduce resolutions …

“But at the end of the day this mayor and past mayors construct the budget and it is their budget and if additional money needs to go somewhere else that is the priority of the next mayor.”

A mayoral spokesman said he doesn’t “expect any changes to the mayor’s budget,” but added that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has sought “creative ways to find more money” for youth jobs and is currently working with private entities to identify more funding sources.

“She hears (the need for youth jobs) throughout the year and I don’t think it’s been lost on her,” said spokesman Ian Brennan. “She made that commitment to keep it going …

YouthWorks can’t work if it’s the city alone, it has to be the state, nonprofits, businesses coming together to create these opportunities.”

YouthWorks – a six-week, 30-year-old city program – matches youth ages 14-21 with summer jobs at local businesses. Roughly 400 companies participated in 2010. Some take on participants, but don’t hire them directly, so the city pays the youths’ wages – $1,100 per student.

YouthWorks is funded under the mayor’s budget but also relies on contributions from private and non-profit sources to stay afloat. Stimulus funding allowed the city to peak its number of participants in 2009 at 7000, according to city officials. Now that federal funding has dried up, the city has cut the number of students to 5,000, lowered the tail end of the participant age from 24 to 21 and reduced youth work hours from 30 to 25 hours a week.

Gov. Martin O’Malley allocated $1.3 million from the state’s supplemental budget to fund youth jobs and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake sponsored an Orioles and Ravens Raffle to raise money for the summer jobs program.

Councilman Pete Welch told the group he’s scheduled a hearing about youth jobs funding for June 2, although it was not posted to the Baltimore City Council online legislative calendar as of May 24.

Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO