Boston’s Jobs For Youth Shifts Upmarket: When Political Winds Shift

Martha Nichols
July 1, 1998

Jobs for Youth in Boston needed to regroup in the mid-1990s. For three successful years, its biotechnology training program placed about 50 clients at companies like Genzyme, Immunotech, and BioSurface Technology. But by then the local industry was overextended, the federal JTPA money funneled through the City of Boston had gone south, and William Weld’s Republican administration — which brought welfare reform to Massachusetts even before the federal shift — held sway.

At that point, Jobs for Youth was receiving about $30,000 a year of welfare money for its biotech program, but even this was cut in 1994. JFY was essentially told by the Weld administration that people on public assistance don’t deserve advantages that poor, working people don’t have. Once again, funding changes happened for ideological reasons.

Executive Director Gary Kaplan says of the biotech program’s demise, “We learned two good lessons: first, don’t put all your eggs in one industry; second, don’t count on public funding — don’t think that just because you made your contract numbers and placed welfare recipients in jobs that paid twice as much as what the Department set as a standard, with benefits far beyond anything imagined, in jobs in which most of them are still there five years later — don’t think that means you’re going to get refunded.”

Part of the problem is that advanced-skill training is expensive. JFY’s biotech program came out at $10,000 a head. During the welfare reform debate, Kaplan argued that you can get people off welfare and into real jobs, but you have to spend money to do so. “With $2,000 you can just get them dressed up and sent to a job interview,” he said in a 1994 Wall Street Journal article. “It takes a lot of money to train people.”

Unfortunately, the political winds shifted in the other direction. Now, for its “Business Partners” job-placement program, JFY receives only $1,500 a year per client for welfare-to-work and it only gets this money after that person has been in a job for 30 days. As for job training, there’s almost no public money available. JFY’s environmental-technology and financial-services programs still cost $6,000 to $8,000 a head, and it has turned to private foundations and corporate fees to foot the bill. (Another program for surgical technicians failed, like biotech, because of a downturn in the hospital industry.) Only one small public piece ($30,000 from the EPA) funds its environmental-tech training. JFY has to “stay on top of the market,” Kaplan says, “which in some ways is harder than figuring out what the government wants. We have to act like a business.”

And even if political winds change, often public-sector attitudes don’t. A 1992 evaluation of the Job Training Partnership Act, commissioned by the Labor Department, showed that short-term job training produced no measurable income gain for participants. Republicans at the time used it to discredit JTPA, complaining about money spent with no results. Yet the latest federal incarnation, welfare-to-work, still focuses on short-term job training and placement. The moral of the story? In the realm of employment, Kaplan points out, “public funding is always limited and politically vulnerable.”

Nichols, Martha. "Boston’s Jobs For Youth Shifts Upmarket: When Political Winds Shift." Youth Today, July/August 1998, p. 50.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.