Corps for Troubled Youths Now Finds Itself in Trouble
Critics see waste, but Dorothy Wilson says program turned her life around
WHILE Victor Sheron was supposed to be going to high school, he probably spent more time ``joy riding'' in stolen cars. He only made it to class three days a month and, not surprisingly, he never graduated.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But a federally funded school-to-work program has changed all that. Since enrolling at the Woodland Job Corps Center in this Washington, D.C., suburb 10 months ago, Victor has earned the equivalent of a high school diploma, a nurse's aide certificate, and a driver's license. Two weeks ago, he started college.
For Victor and thousands of other troubled youths, the Job Corps - one of the last remnants of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty - has helped turn their lives around from drugs and crime to discipline and hard work.
But the program, the largest and most expensive training course of its kind in the country, now lies at the center of a profound debate in Washington over the role of government in helping the poor.
Congressional critics are attacking the $1-billion-plus Job Corps as a prime example of mismanagement, abuse, and a waste of money. As proof, they point to the many dropouts who have left what was supposed to be a haven for progress but turned out too often to be a hotbed of violence.
Evidence shows that both sides are right. The Job Corps offers troubled kids from Appalachia to Los Angeles free room and board, health and child care, counseling, and job training. Many drop out. But some 70 percent of its graduates get jobs, go into the military, or continue with school. Many centers, however, have become almost as threatening as the streets the kids come from: They are troubled by gang warfare, drug trafficking, and incidents of rape, as past students recount and administrators concede.
As with food stamps, Medicaid, and other social programs now under budget scrutiny, there is a rush to document the Job Corps' successes and failures. President Clinton boosted government support for it in his first two years in office - moves that won bipartisan approval.
But now the White House, which had hoped to double the number of Job Corps Centers by the year 2000, is fighting just to retain current funding.
Job Corps is a main item on the Republican chopping block. Wielding the knife is Sen. Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, a moderate Republican and chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee. ``Job Corps,'' she says, ``must change and change, for the better, or it will die.''
That's a stinging threat to many Democrats, who are trying to preserve Great Society programs designed for the poor. They worry that if party moderates like Ms. Kassebaum want to eliminate Job Corps, more conservative legislators will be even tougher on larger, more troubled social programs, such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), where costs are rising dramatically.
Started in 1964, Job Corps today has 111 centers spread throughout the country. To date, 1.5 million troubled youths between the ages of 16 and 24 have entered the program to pursue their secondary education and a variety of trades, from construction to culinary arts. The typical participant is an 18-year-old minority high school dropout who reads on a seventh-grade level and probably comes from a family on public assistance.
The average length of stay is almost eight months and costs the US taxpayer $14,000 per head. A full year's participation is roughly $23,000.
``We looked at it because it is the single most expensive job-training program, per student, and it was considered the best,'' says a Senate Labor Committee investigator. After reviewing a report from the Labor Department's Inspector General (IG), he says: ``We were stunned by the high dropout rates - 30 percent in the first 90 days, 50 percent in the first six months.''
Among the IG's other findings: Many centers are dangerous; many center operators (private contractors paid by the federal government) go to great lengths - such as overlooking violence, drug abuse, and truancy - to keep participation levels high to qualify for maximum funding. ``They get paid by the head,'' says the Senate source.
Larry King, a union representative for the National Federation of Federal Employees, which runs 11 centers across the country, was so concerned about the surge in violence that he surveyed workers at their centers in 1992. He found that 85 percent of them had been assaulted by Job Corps students over an 18-month period. Nothing has changed since then, says Mr. King, who has worked 13 years as a Job Corps employee in ``close contact with the kids.''