A FIRST job and a first paycheck mark turning points in a teenager's life, signaling new responsibility and greater maturity. But for many young people this summer, a job remains only a dream. At a time when layoffs continue to be more common than hirings for everyone, the national teenage unemployment rate approaches 20 percent. In some urban areas such as New York City, it is almost twice as high.
Last week President Clinton's request for $1 billion to create summer jobs for low-income young people between the ages of 14 and 21 was killed in the Senate, forcing him to settle for $166.5 million. That will fund only 700,000 jobs, far fewer than the administration had planned to provide this year.
To its credit, the Clinton administration has made efforts to include skills training in the summer youth program. It is also weighing the possibility of extending the summer jobs program for disadvantaged young people into a year-round program.
Cutting summer jobs programs can be shortsighted. Employing young people in federally subsidized jobs costs money, to be sure. But it can hardly be considered charity, especially when the jobs teenagers hold are not simply "hollow" or make-work positions. In the long run, these programs can also save millions of dollars in welfare and criminal justice costs.
Experts on youth employment point out that public and private ventures over the years have demonstrated the benefits of basic skills training for teenagers. They find that in addition to learning new skills, teenagers return to school without having lost ground during the summer.
Whatever the level of funding available in the future, Congress needs to begin addressing the issue of summer youth employment much earlier - in October, not June. Last-minute funding makes it difficult, if not impossible, for cities and agencies to plan.
In a tight economy, when every dollar spent has to be scrutinized, jobs for youths still represent one of the most defensible investments. Private enterprise, too, has a role to play in employing teens.
In addition to getting young people off the street corner, jobs help make them part of the real community. The satisfaction that comes with meaningful activity and a paycheck, however modest, can represent a beacon of hope - the first step out of poverty and despair.