de blasio and johnson

Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office

Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Johnson in 2018. The Council has promised to fight for youth funding in the budget for fiscal 2021, which is due soon.

Even in a normal year, kids need support over the summer. It’s vital for their development. Karla Herrera ought to know. At age 11, she participated in the youth programming run by the social services organization, Center for Family Life, based in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. 

Now she’s the program director for Center for Family Life’s afterschool site at P.S. 94. As the end of this school year arrives, New York students’ needs are even greater after a spring of isolation, illness, death, unemployment and other challenges.

But it remains unclear, even as the city emerges from lockdown, whether there will be any resources to help kids navigate the next two months.

Last year, the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) provided up to six weeks of paid work and educational experience at 13,157 work sites for 74,453 young people in New York City between the ages of 14 and 24. 

The mayor’s executive budget, announced in April, included a cut of $124 million (by eliminating the 2020 Summer Youth Employment Program) as City & State reported in May. The reasons for suspending city-funded summer programming cited in New York City’s Citywide Savings Program publication from April were “school closures and space concerns.” 

Last week, 1,946 people who work at non-profit, community-based organizations across the five boroughs sent an open letter to the mayor’s office and the City Council urging action to reinstate funding for summer youth programming, including Beacon, COMPASS, Cornerstones, SONYC, and the program for summer youth employment, SYEP.

Adapting to an emergency

When the COVID-19 public health crisis took hold and then public schools closed, Center for Family Life staff discussed how they’d adjust their programming. They recreated schedules so that the young people participating in their programming could at least have some virtual activities with regular timing, like art class on Mondays, and have “moments of normalcy.” Herrera repeated a theme of her social work training, “Meet the client where they’re at.” 

After the New York City public school system closed in mid-March, city teachers had to adjust to conducting classes only online. From then on, public school students throughout the city had to interact with their teachers and peers from home rather than in school buildings. The public health threat posed by the spread of the coronavirus has required New Yorkers in many sectors to change the way they work, of course. Yet, the adjustment to a “new normal” is significantly harder for children. The decisions adults in charge make about changes to educational and enrichment programs serving youth have lasting effects on kids’ cognitive and emotional development.

Herrera says, “We could not just leave our kids with nothing. How can you expect a child to finish all their schoolwork if they don’t have the opportunity to blow off steam? With the coronavirus, they’ve already been affected so much. We don’t want to gamble with kids’ futures.”

At the beginning of June, Center for Family Life staff had to start speaking with students about programming being suspended this summer. The new fiscal year for New York City begins in July and the organization will be unable to pay employees for work on summer programs if de Blasio does not reinstate funding.

“We want to be seen as a hub for opportunities and we can’t do that if funding is uncertain,” says Herrera.

Budget dance nears deadline

So far, it is unclear if the mayor and Council are going to come together on a spending plan that saves SYEP and other youth programs.

“We are continuing to work with the City Council, along with private and philanthropic partners, to find ways to provide valuable opportunities for our young adults this summer,” the Mayor’s Office said in a statement emailed to City Limits on Monday. “We face over $9 billion in tax revenue losses over the next two years, and we also need the federal government to step up and provide aid and for Albany to grant us borrowing authority so that we can avoid deeper budget cuts that hurt our economic recovery.”

In response to a City Limits inquiry, a Council spokesperson said in an emailed statement on Monday, “The Council is deeply concerned about the administration’s proposed cuts to summer youth programs, which have long been a Council priority. Speaker Johnson and his colleagues are fighting to restore these programs in some form as budget negotiations continue.”

Back in April, when the city first proposed cuts to summer youth programming and the summer youth employment program, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson co-signed a letter to Mayor de Blasio raising concerns about cuts to youth programming including the Summer Youth Employment Program. 

Nora Moran, director of policy and advocacy at United Neighborhood Houses (UNH), says the mayor’s public health-centered rationale for cutting such a significant percentage of the budget for Department of Youth and Community Development, which already had a relatively small budget, didn’t seem to match the reality of how school-year youth programs were operating. Even then, Moran says, “It seemed like both a budget issue and a lack of imagination.”

By mid-April, organizations had already worked to adjust afterschool programming to take place online. “Providers were helping children deal with loss and trauma, encouraging social interaction even if through a screen,” says Moran. And she adds that these organizations were acting as another check-in on kids and their families, connecting New Yorkers with emergency food services when needed, for example. Moran emphasizes that the community-based groups doing this work that relied on city funding were prepared to continue virtually over the summer. 

At a press conference on April 16 that centered on the new preliminary fiscal budget, de Blasio said, “The things … that would have required spending money now to get ready for the summer we’re just not doing, because we don’t have yet a clear roadmap to how we get to those summer activities. So, right now, [we have a] cautious approach focused on beating back this disease. That’s where we’re at.”

Outside help is unlikely to materialize. Most of SYEP’s funding came from the city budget in 2019: $134 million of $164 million. Over the past decade, the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development has been receiving less funding from the federal government. In fact, an analysis from FPWA Federal Funds Tracker shows federal grants to the department have fallen by $45 million (58 percent) since fiscal year 2010 after adjusting for inflation. Since fiscal year 2017, the department’s budget has hovered between $700 million and $900 million. In a typical year, the department consumes less than one percent of the total city budget.

However,  New York City is also still awaiting $22 million in state TANF funds, which the city could put toward summer youth employment. Since the state legislature gave Gov. Andrew Cuomo power to decide on periodic budget cuts depending on revenue, it’s still unclear when New York City will get an answer from the state on TANF funds, Chalkbeat reported last week

Ready to serve

Now that New York City is entering the second phase of reopening, more caregivers will continue to return to work throughout the summer. If the money does come through, many providers are prepared to resume summer programming.

Although knowing whether their programs will be funded this summer sooner would be preferable for organizations to have time to plan, organizations like Center for Family Life are prepared to run virtual programming that would be largely similar to their afterschool programs that continued during the height of the pandemic.

“If we don’t get the funding, we can’t continue any of the virtual programs this summer or start some in-person work in Sunset Park. There will be more people returning to work and not all kids have someone to take care of them this summer,” says Herrera. “And what is the effect down the road? To a kid, one summer can feel like a lifetime. And for them one summer can leave lasting impressions.”

Moran explains that especially if the alternative to summer programming is nothing, the fear is that young people will experience greater learning loss and a harder time coping with emotional challenges. Especially with the hope that school might resume in-person in the fall, Moran says, “Without some bridge in place this summer, we are afraid the fall will be challenging.”

Herrera agrees, “When kids go back to school, I wouldn’t be surprised if teachers talk about increased behavioral issues among students. What happens when you don’t have the opportunity to talk about how stressful it is?”

“It comes down to safety,” she continues. “How can you expect kids to learn if they don’t feel safe? They might not be able to put it into words, but it will show in their actions and behaviors and their ability to engage. It’s not just academic success, but it’s their whole quality of life.”

Nicole Javorsky is a Report for America fellow.