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The supply and demand of youth investments

by Mackenzie Lampner, Special to The New Tri-State Defender

Economist Joseph Schumpeter suggests that, “the public finances are one of the best starting points for an investigation of society, especially … of its political life.” What, then, do we learn about our own community when we examine our local municipal budget? What do the allocations in the 2018 budget for the City of Memphis tell us about our collective priorities, especially as they pertain to our local youth?

In his letter accompanying the proposed FY 2018 budget, Mayor Jim Strickland remarked that it reflects an increased investment in youth, as Memphis would be “spending $663,000 more on our youth jobs programs – amplifying a program that already provides 1,400 meaningful opportunities for Memphis young people every year.” When we look at the 2018 budget, which was ultimately approved by the City Council, we see the $663,000 as the allocation for youth services broadly.

The actual increase in funding to the MPLOY Youth program was only $150,000, which only funds an additional 250 positions for summer youth employment. To those who would argue that Memphis lacks the resources to invest in youth, I would stress a consideration of the public finances. In 2018, there was no increase in the tax collection rate. Yet, there was an additional $5.8 million allocation to the Memphis Police Division and $2 million more to street paving for a total of $18.5 million. These financial decisions are a strong indication of the relative valuation of Memphis youth.

While any additional positions for the MPLOY program are a step in the right direction, with more than 8,000 applicants annually, 1,500 positions are not enough to support the professional and academic development of Memphis’ youth population. Take a look at how other cities are working to bridge the gap, and how we can follow suit.

Memphis’ summer youth employment program, MPLOY, is lagging compared to peer cities like St. Louis and Chicago. These cities are both excellent examples of the impact that investment in youth can have on previously disinvested communities. Explicit mayoral emphasis on youth investment and financial follow-through allowed these programs the opportunity to succeed for their city’s youth.

Chicago’s One Summer Chicago program has particularly flourished quickly since its creation in 2011. In only seven years, the city of Chicago has managed to provide more than 32,000 summer jobs to youth annually. In contrast, the MPLOY program was created in 2014 with 1,000 available jobs and has not experienced substantial growth since.

The programs in St. Louis and Chicago are more successful than SYEPs in other peer cities because they actively address and target inequality among applicants. In both St. Louis and Chicago, there is no expectation that youth be enrolled in school in order to participate in the program. This dedication to serving all youth, rather than just those on the “right” path, addresses the societal issues of discriminatory poverty, especially salient in cities such as Chicago and St. Louis as well as Memphis, which encourages discriminatory drop-outs and expulsions from American school systems.

On the contrary, the MPLOY program’s requirement for a participant to be in school only perpetuates societal inequities and ensures that out-of-school youth remain uneducated with menial, if any, employment. With the right approach and proper investments, we could open this opportunity to more and close the opportunity gap for many.

Youth investment programs have traditionally been created to invest in youth who were born into an advantageous position, so the programs in St. Louis and Chicago are making great strides by actively working against that tradition.

Saint Louis’ Youth Jobs program is especially dedicated to combating systemic inequality, and it has done so by ensuring that participation is solely open to youth who have been previously excluded from community investment. This is done through “target neighborhoods,” meaning that positions are only available to youth living in areas which have high rates of youth unemployment, poverty, and juvenile crime and low graduation rates.

Throughout the program, 55 percent of participants received assistance with one or more basic needs such as clothing, transportation, childcare or health services. Those working on Youth Jobs in St. Louis believe that their program will increase the ability of St. Louis’ youth to obtain meaningful work and contribute to their families and communities, thereby increasing the prosperity of the city as a whole.

Administrators of the Memphis program have likewise made an attempt to use this program as a means through which to more fairly redistribute resources such as wealth and career development. The MPLOY program chooses participants through a random lottery system with spaces allocated to school districts dependent on their students’ overall relative economic disadvantages.

However, to truly combat societal inequality, and thereby create a more competitive workforce, Memphis needs to truly invest in education initiatives and youth opportunities like the MPLOY Summer Youth Experience Program. This would require a shift in focus from investing in police and fire, whose two budgets jointly comprise 64.41 percent of the 2019 budget, to an investment in people.

(Mackenzie Lampner is a senior scholar from Rhodes College studying education policy and reform through interdisciplinary explorations of pressing social and educational issues. Fulfilling her final requirements, Mackenzie serves as an intern for Stand and will graduate in May 2019.)

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