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The Jobs That Never Came : Employment: The city hoped to hire 40,000 youths this summer. But Congress slashed federal funding, and many young lives are stuck on hold.

July 28, 1993|JOHN L. MITCHELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Luciana Duren, a soft-spoken 16-year-old with heavy responsibilities, is one of the lucky ones. She landed a summer clerical job at a South Los Angeles community center, and now she is eager to see just how far a $191-a-week paycheck will stretch.

"I want to help my little sister, my brother and myself," she said. "I want to buy clothes for them, give them money for school, and I plan to help my grandmother pay some of the bills too."

Ardena Carter, 14, also has a thirst for work, but she was not as fortunate. She too applied for a city-sponsored job, but her application got lost and by the time she discovered the mishap, all the slots had been filled. To earn money this summer, she may have to return to her former job of baby-sitting.

"I had hoped to do something to gain some real work experience," she said. "Now I don't know what I'm going to do."

Luciana and Ardena are among the haves and have-nots of this year's summer youth jobs program for low-income families in Los Angeles.

Earlier this year, city officials were preparing to hire as many as 40,000 youths with an anticipated $50-million allocation for summer jobs under President Clinton's economic stimulus package. They circulated 75,000 job applications and nearly a third came back completed.

Many thought the city would be overflowing with summer jobs for young people, but the actual number turned out to be only a trickle after Clinton's domestic agenda was slashed by Congress. The city received $16.7 million, enough for 10,700 jobs.

Instead of a glut, there were slightly more than half the jobs available last summer after the riots. Thousands of 14- to 21-year-olds who applied to work in the six-week program at various community organizations and government agencies were turned away.

"When the money didn't flow in, we had to quickly downsize the program," said Earl Jones, who directs the summer youth employment training program for the city's Community Development Department.

The $5.47-an-hour jobs are rarely challenging, but they provide valuable work experience needed for future employment. There are more immediate benefits, too.

"A summer job gives some teen-agers an opportunity to return to school in the fall," Jones said. "The extra money often makes the difference in whether a family has food at the end of the month when welfare runs out."

The work assignments given teen-agers differ among the hundreds of programs scattered throughout the city. Some rake leaves, plant trees or clean graffiti while others fax messages, file papers and work with computers. Some are museum tour guides or elementary school tutors.

At USC, a dozen teen-agers from South-Central Los Angeles were hired to act in a stage production of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet."

"Acting is hard work," said Ben Donenberg, artistic director of Shakespeare Festival/LA, which is sponsoring the work program. He said the city's commitment to his program reflects "an enlightened understanding of the contribution the arts can play in terms of job creation and economic development."

Stephon Barnett, an 18-year-old participant from Watts, said the prospect of doing work was more attractive than the idea of doing Shakespeare.

"The Shakespeare thing, to be honest, I really didn't get into it at first," he said. "Shakespeare has never been one of my favorite subjects. But then we went to see the play and it really seemed good. I started to get into it. I changed my mind."

In South-Central Los Angeles, where unemployment among minority youths is above 40%, the number of summer jobs seems to many like a drop in the bucket.

"There are just not enough to go around," said Mitchell Jackson, who runs Avalon Carver Community Center's summer jobs program. "We get 35 calls a day from kids looking for work and there's nothing we can do for them."

Mitchell was prepared to hire more than the 114 teen-agers given jobs last year in the wake of the riots, but instead he had slots for only 80.

Mary Henry, Avalon Carver's executive director, said the summer jobs program provides much-needed work experience for underprivileged teen-agers. But she said more attention must be paid to the larger problem of chronic adult unemployment in minority communities.

"We love to see kids working," she said. "They buy clothes for school, build self-esteem and become more independent. But parents face a different problem. It's not just a few weeks that they are concerned about, but the future. It's important for the kids to work, but parents deserve a better shot."

At 16, Luciana Duren says she is ready to take on some adult responsibilities. Driven by a desire to help out at home, she got her job application in early and was hired to work in the office at Avalon Carver, filling out time cards, preparing office payroll.

"She's a very serious young woman," said La-Teffeya M. McCeree, 20, who supervises Luciana.

Luciana has faced tragedy. Since her mother died of pneumonia three years ago, she has carried an extra burden of concern for her younger brother and sister. She lives with her grandmother, who has encouraged her to do well in school and pursue her ambition to become a doctor. "If I didn't have a job this summer, I would be going to school taking some academic courses," she said.

Ardena Carter also wanted a job to help out at home, but none was available.

"A job would give me more independence, allow me to buy my own clothes," she said.

But when her plan for a job fell through, it was too late to apply to summer school and she was left spending much of her time around the house. "There is not a lot to do," she said.

That worries her mother.

"She is a good girl; she's no trouble," said Diane Croomes, her mother. "But when your child is out of school with nothing much to do, anything might happen."

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