Turn That Smile Upside Down

TMM_small.jpgSomebody in the Mayor’s press office needs a raise. Tom Menino’s Camp Harbor View — which has provided free summer fun (and supervision) for 300 underprivileged Boston youths — is certainly a wonderful program. But when was the last time that one of hizzoner’s initiatives was the subject of not one but two big-sloppy-wet-kiss columns? On July 31, the Globe’s Adrian Walker lauded the mayor for the camp. And then last weekend, the New York Times’ Bob Herbert spent 750 words singing the praises of “Mr. Menino” (sorry, link for Times Select users only).

Unfortunately, both writers missed the larger point.

Both columns made sure to focus on our heroic mayor’s goofy grin. Walker started his piece by writing, “Mayor Thomas M. Menino and [financial backer] Jack Connors met at the scene of their joint venture last week, so pleased with themselves that they couldn’t stop smiling.” Herbert, meanwhile, ended his story by comparing the Mayor to an overjoyed camper: “Mr. Menino’s grin, as we drove back over the two-lane bridge, was almost as wide as the smile on the kid who survived his four-story leap.”

Not to put too much of a damper on the smile-fest otherwise known as Summer 2007, but it’s not exactly good news across the board for the city’s youth summer programming. In fact, over the last five years, opportunity has diminished for probably the most important demographic of Boston youths: teenagers. This year, the city projected being able to find nearly 9,100 subsidized summer jobs for teenagers through organizations like the Boston Private Industry Council and Action for Boston Community Development. While that compares favorably to last summer (8,574 jobs), it pales to the high water mark of the summer of 2002, when city-coordinated efforts found 11,699 jobs for Boston teens.

“Essentially, for many of the subsidized jobs the funding is just not there,” Mark Isenburg, the VP for Work Force Development at ABCD says. “Many of the kinds of jobs that were available in the past, whether it’s in retail or the service sector, many of those jobs are being taken up by adults.”

Federal and state funding cuts are the prime culprits for the downturn in youth summer jobs, sources say. Isenberg’s colleague at ABCD, executive VP John Drew, adds that if things don’t get better soon, organizations like his could be tipping toward crisis. According to Drew, over the course of the last 10 years, ABCD’s funding has lost in the neighborhood of $40 million. “I know we used to get five to six million dollars [per year]. Now we get $1 million,” he says.

There are some other factors at work — Josh Bruno, Boston PIC’s Summer Jobs Coordinator, reports that over 1,000 fewer teens are being placed in private sector jobs, and that is partly due to downturn in hotel and restaurant hiring since 9/11 as well as companies leaving the city (where jobs are easily accessible via the T) for the suburbs. Still, Bruno says, the lack of federal and state funding doesn’t help.

Everyone seems to agree that Menino’s trying. But the bottom line is that, at least in terms of teen hiring, we’re worse off than we were five years ago. Certainly the Mayor deserves some credit for programs like Camp Harbor View, and the smiles are fine, but we shouldn’t ignore the bigger picture.