UNITED States Rep. Maxine Waters is fighting hard to draw national attention to her most pressing concern: America's unemployed youths.
Ms. Waters, a California Democrat and Los Angeles's leading black politician, has proposed the $80 million Youth Fair Chance program which provides needy 17- to-30-year-olds with a modest stipend to stay enrolled in vocational education, degree equivalency, and apprenticeship programs. Waters has won both White House and substantial congressional approval, but this week she encountered strong opposition in the Senate.
In the constant budget battles among national policymakers, measures to integrate the growing number of young and out-of-work Americans into the mainstream economy move slowly.
While the federal government has been financing vocational training for a hundred years, advocates say Washington still has no strategy to stem increases in the high-school dropout rate and bridge gaps in education and job skills.
"When we look at programs [such as Ms. Waters's] only after a riot, what are we saying? We're dealing with the symptom, not the cause," says Alan Zuckerman, executive director of the advocacy group National Youth Employment Coalition.
While President Clinton has included some changes in funding for job training and employment opportunities in his ever-evolving economic package, politicians, advocates, and professionals in the field say the problems will continue to compound until there is a major overhaul, not simple refinements, in programs.
The biggest target should be the huge federally funded Jobs Training Partnership Act (JTPA), which spends $15 million a year in New York City alone, says Peter Kleinbard, director of Manhattan's Young Adult Learning Academy, a remedial education and job-placement center.
"JTPA has been a real bomb," he says. "There's no vision or strong management from the federal government, and the bureaucracies are corrosive." Local JTPA contractors looking for an early return on their investment help the jobless who are easiest to place, at the expense of more troubled youth, Mr. Kleinbard says.
"These people don't show up on anybody's statistics - they're out on the streets in New York, in Detroit, in St. Louis, in Philadelphia - and America just walks around them," according to Waters, who says her legislation is one chip at the block of federal mismanagement.
It is imperative to give both the jobless and those asked to support their integration into the economy a common cause, says Howard Cullum, Virginia's secretary of health and human resources. His state is making strides that should be taken on a national level, he says. "Virginia taxpayers will fund job training if they can see completed projects, such as a walkway, a zoo cage, a church repaired, a road constructed."
"Nationally, we need to rethink what is the `second-chance system,' " says Mr. Cullum. "Our objective - whether it's through community-based service or through work study programs - is to move youth out of subsidized jobs and push them into the private sector."
Kleinbard says the employment prospects are poor.
"The economy isn't prepared to absorb BAs from college, much less our graduates," he says. Few of Kleinbard's students and others who are participating in such "second chance" programs are picked up for full-time employment in the private sector. Most, if they do find work, take government-sponsored jobs. The more coveted private-sector employers generally stay away from at-risk youth, Kleinbard says.
Waters laments that "there are many small and medium businesses that look for experienced people because they cannot afford to train [these youths]."
While the Clinton administration has put great stock in private-sector job generation, current and future economic conditions look dim. "Employment gains are likely to remain anemic because businesses do not think the recovery will accelerate and the costs of hiring and firing are much greater than they used to be," says Michael Evans of Evans Economics Inc.
And businesses face increasing obstacles to increasing their employment rolls. Small and mid-sized firms, generators of most of the nation's job growth, must devote capital to a host of federally imposed mandates, from family-leave policies to likely costly health-care provisions.
If government were to help business in meeting those costs, the payoff would be high, Cullum says. "A $3,000 health-care bill is much cheaper than a $7,500 welfare check," he says. He adds that giving business the investment incentives necessary to hire and train American youth "will show that government assistance is a true bridge rather than a permanent receptacle for the less fortunate."
Meanwhile, the political battle continues in Washington. Sen. William Roth (R) of Delaware harshly criticizes Clinton's tax proposals, which he says have caused business confidence to plunge and threaten to result in 400,000 to 1.2 million job losses. "Those are not all youth, of course," he concedes, but young, inexperienced, and untrained workers are less employable than adults, he says.
Mr. Roth's own jobs bill - which calls for business tax credits for new employees, small business expensing deduction increases and other incentives - is sponsored by Senate minority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas. "There's really only one way to go and that's to re-create what happened in the [relatively laissez-faire environment of the] 1980s - that's the one time when there was a dip in the unemployment rate of the young," he says.