Many youths face a hot season with idle hands. Big budget cuts in Camden making summer jobs scarce

Posted: June 30, 2007

Camden's teenagers, many of them idle for the summer, may have a hard time finding jobs this year.

Faced with budget cuts, the city's usual summer employers have drastically scaled back and there are few jobs to go around, officials said.

Mayor Gwendolyn Faison described the job outlook for high-school-age youth as the worst in recent memory. She estimated there would be 700 fewer jobs available than last year.

That could make for a long, hot summer in a city where the unemployment rate is high and about 12 percent of the 79,000 residents are between ages 15 and 19.

Camden's unemployment rate in 2006 was 10.7 percent, more than twice the state average of 4.6 percent.

Last summer, the city partnered with the school board and the housing authority to create 800 summer jobs for youth, Faison said.

But across-the-board budget cuts have taken a big bite out of summer jobs, she said. The city can barely muster 55 jobs, and the housing authority and school board are providing none, she said.

The school board, trying to plug a $9.5 million budget deficit, cut its summer youth jobs program, which previously hired several hundred teens.

"We always had over 400 summer jobs for kids," former board member Dwaine J. Williams said. "You find something for them to do."

City officials worry that crime could increase with so many youths having nothing to do. Several recreation programs also have been cut.

Said Arturo Venegas, head of the city's police department: "Not every student is going to go out and commit crime, but it makes them more susceptible. . . ."

For parent Richard Patterson, 44, of the 1300 block of Dayton Street, the employment picture dealt a major blow to his plans to keep his three sons busy during the summer.

Patterson and his family live near a notorious drug corner, and he said he was struggling to keep his sons away from the lure of drugs by keeping them employed. So far, none has found a job.

He worries that an idle summer could be especially difficult for his youngest son, Markus Chandler, 16. The teen was picked up by police this week for violating curfew rules.

"Last summer I worked in a city center in Centerville," a setion of Camden, Markus said as he stood outside in the heat, shirtless. He said he had tried to find work this summer at local stores and fast-food restaurants.

"I tried in Lindenwold," he said. "I put in my application, but I didn't hear back."

Council President Angel Fuentes, who is a member of Camden's Economic Recovery Board, said businesses and local leaders should step up to provide jobs.

"We understand the complexities," Fuentes said. The city "should start working for the next time. [They] should say they need summer jobs to keep youth away from the corners, so the youth can have what it takes to eventually be in the workforce."

The city's director of health and human services, Tony Evans, said $100,000 that normally would have been used to hire summer workers had been slashed from his department's budget.

Before he stepped down as chief operating officer, Melvin R. "Randy" Primas Jr. said he believed the chief failing of the Camden Municipal Rehabilitation and Recovery Act was that it targeted bricks and mortar rather than people.

"They say there are no jobs," harrumphed Debra Scott as she sat on her steps near Sixth and Chestnut Streets. She said she had sent four neighborhood youths to the city's job fair a couple of weeks ago and one landed a job - at a McDonald's.

Because of a cutback in summer jobs programs around the country, National Urban League executive director Marc Morial said his agency had begun a push in Congress to restore federal funding for the programs.

"I'm passionate about the issue of summer jobs," Morial said recently. "What happens when too many youths have nothing to do all summer long? They get into trouble. They join gangs, they take drugs, and they get pregnant."

Music industry mogul Leon Huff, a Camden native, said city jobs had helped shape his work ethic as a youth. He visited the city last week to help kick off a weekend reunion.

"Things were different" when he grew up, he said. "Broadway was full of jobs. There were jobs at men's stores and others. I worked at a men's store when I was 16. All you had to do was really want to work."


Contact staff writer Dwight Ott at 856-779-3844 or dott@phillynews.com.

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