As the budget year winds down, House and Senate leaders came up with a compromise deal on a budget for fiscal 2017. But a hard reality remains: Lawmakers are grappling with a revenue shortfall that could reach up to $950 million for the coming year.
One relatively small but important line item already faces damaging cuts: state funding for youth jobs. Lawmakers who would take away summer work for teens fail to see the clear return on investment in providing meaningful support for a youth job market that is increasingly challenging.
The program provides money for YouthWorks, which pays the wages of 4,400 low-income teens in eligible cities who work for nonprofits or local government agencies in the summer. The Senate originally proposed the same funding amount as last year, $11.5 million. Level-funding actually means 600 fewer positions, though, because of the rise in the state’s minimum-wage increase to $10 per hour this year and $11 per hour next year. Maintaining the number of positions would take $13.34 million. But the compromise budget bill lawmakers filed Wednesday night included $10.2 million for the program, which translates into about 1,000 jobs lost.
The summer job reductions come in a shrinking youth employment market. Teen employment has dropped significantly since the late 1990s, when more than 50 percent of teenagers had jobs. The number now is below 30 percent, and as the minimum wage continues to rise, that percentage will be challenging to maintain. Advocates estimate that only 1 in 4 teens who apply for state-funded jobs actually gets work.
The value of introducing teens to the workplace, especially those from less privileged areas, where jobs are generally less available, cannot be overstated. Massachusetts has a strong economy, but it risks leaving too many potential workers behind. Lawmakers should make state-funded jobs for youth a clear priority. Should economic predictions for the Commonwealth improve in the near future, they must restore funding for YouthWorks to support upward of 4,000 annual jobs.
A few million dollars in cuts is practically meaningless in the Legislature’s proposed $39.1 billion budget, but it would have very real impact for the most vulnerable teens in need of a foothold in the Massachusetts economy.