Like many other cities, Hartford, Connecticut has been facing the challenge of creating a stable, competitive workforce. This effort involves responding to employer expectations and identifying emerging markets while trying to establish a vibrant community where people want to raise their families and where businesses want to locate. Balancing these factors is a task for mayors all across the country. And many cities, like ours, have developed functioning workforce investment partnerships with proven results. Unfortunately, federal funding for such cost-saving innovations has been cut.
In 1999, the city of Hartford, in concert with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Youth Opportunity Program, launched a five-year intensive effort to develop, “YO Hartford,” a comprehensive youth-service strategy to address the poverty and unemployment issues that disproportionately impact young people. Hartford’s youth represent a higher percentage of the city’s population than in surrounding communities. Unemployment in the city is higher than national and regional figures, at about 7 percent. The unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds is higher still, exceeding 14.5 percent. Although improved in the last several years, school dropout rates for Hartford students remain high, particularly for young minority males. The cumulative four-year school dropout rate for the city’s class of 2000 was 28.3 percent, significantly higher than in any of the surrounding communities and in comparable Connecticut and northeastern cities.
Now in its fifth year of federal funding, the “YO Hartford” initiative has seen solid results from its collaborative efforts to assist youth in 20 of the poorest census tracts in Hartford. Our regional Workforce Investment Board has led the implementation of this comprehensive youth development effort that has helped up to 2,000 youth achieve specific educational and employment-related outcomes. The central elements of “YO Hartford” include a state-of-the-art, Web-based case management system and clearly delineated pathways to success that guide youth through the comprehensive set of services and developmental experiences they need to achieve these outcomes. Key partners include the Hartford Public Schools, the City of Hartford, and a wide range of public and nonprofit service providers. By combining resources and information, we reduce costs and serve more young people.
In recent years increased job and educational opportunities have been realized by hundreds and hundreds of youths thanks to “YO Hartford.” It is well documented and data-driven and has been one of the nation’s strongest outcome-based programs of its kind for disadvantaged youths. Yet, the Department of Labor’s Youth Opportunity Program (originally funded at $250 million in FY 1999) is likely to be zeroed out by Congress as part of its FY 2004 omnibus appropriations bill. As a result, 2,000 of Hartford’s youth and over 80,000 young people from 36 cities across the country will have their programs eliminated. Heroic efforts to restore this funding in the Omnibus Appropriations bill currently before the Senate are likely to fail.
Faced with these federal funding cuts, I recently convened the Hartford Future Workforce Investment System (HFWIS) Leadership Committee. The purpose of the HFWIS Leadership Committee is to develop an institutional blueprint and framework for future workforce investment system strategies. In addition, I have been meeting with my Task Force on Hartford’s Future Workforce, a partnership with the Capital Workforce Partners, the city of Hartford and surrounding towns to help prepare youth and young adults to become contributors to the economy.
I remain passionately committed to helping more young people finish high school, go on to and finish college, earn a living wage, and acquire long-term occupational skills. It is a shame that I have to fight to defend or reconfigure a program that has already proven to work, but I have no choice. Hartford has the highest rate of poverty in the nation for cities with 100,000 or more residents. This poverty disproportionately impacts young people. I will fight to restore cuts in federal funding for the Department of Labor’s Youth Opportunity Program, encourage other mayors to do the same, and continue my efforts to prepare the city’s future workforce.
Eddie A. Perez is the mayor of Hartford, Conn.