* I spent part of my teens living on a military base in Germany. My mom joined the US Department of Defense Civil Service when I was 13 and my dad joined later.
Back then, the military created a bunch of make-work summer jobs for teenagers. We were paid a couple of bucks an hour to do whatever we were told. Sometimes that wasn’t very much. Sometimes it was a bit dangerous.
One summer, we spent a week unloading truckloads of ammunition boxes, punching holes in them to drain the water, flattening them and then putting them back on trucks to be hauled away. My best friend at the time, Ralph Armenta, was hurt when somebody hit his hand with a hammer as he was passing an ammo box down a table.
But, usually, we were detailed to do mindless office work or other stuff they made up to keep us at least somewhat busy and put a few dollars into our pockets.
The idea was to make sure there weren’t roving groups of bored, unemployed teenagers on the bases. Most of us either didn’t qualify for jobs “on the economy” (in German businesses) so we literally had nothing else to do.
I learned some valuable lessons from that experience. First, it’s a good idea to make sure that teens are given something to do. Second, never, EVER work for the Department of Defense.
* So, I get the premise of this initiative by Gov. Pat Quinn, perhaps too well…
On a chilly afternoon this fall, teenagers across Chicago’s South Side were busy at work, earning $8.75 an hour to hand out fliers with a message of non-violence.
“Our message that we’re giving out today is about being healthy,” said 18-year-old Lucia Eloisa. “One of the key pointers is about taking time to reflect and seek inner peace.”
Eloisa’s part-time job was paid for by an ambitious state-funded program to keep at-risk teenagers out of trouble. It pumped nearly $55 million into Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods and three of its suburbs to stem unrelenting gang violence.
A four-month CNN investigation found that not only did the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative (NRI) pay teens to hand out fliers promoting inner peace, it also paid these at-risk teens to take field trips to museums, march in a parade with the governor, and even attend a yoga class to learn how to handle stress.
Wait. Kids got paid to attend a yoga class?
Look, yoga might actually help kids in crime-ridden areas. They could learn to relax and deal with stress. Setting up a yoga program could be a good idea. But paying the kids to take the class? What?
* The parade bothers me the most, however…
The NRI also paid teens from the Better Boys Foundation to march in the 82nd Annual Bud Billiken Parade on August 13, 2011, with Quinn, according to records and video of the parade.
“Their job was promoting positive messages, etc., which is what the parade is about,” a spokesman for Quinn said.
* Apparently, too much money was simply spent too fast without giving anything much thought…
Examples of the apparent misuse of the program’s money don’t surprise Mike Shaver, whose organization, Chicago Children’s Home and Aid, received $2.1 million for its role as a lead agency for the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.
He and others say the initiative was just too big, and providers were not equipped to evaluate which programs were working and which were not.
“We weren’t able to get enough information about what was going on in our own program to understand whether we were having the desired impact,” said Shaver.
* And the timing was questionable…
In October 2010 — less than a month before the gubernatorial election — Quinn announced his Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, which he said would “take on the root causes of violence” in Chicago and across Illinois by creating “about 3,000 part time and permanent jobs for young people so they have a positive way to go.”
“And we mean business,” Quinn said at the October 6 news conference. “We really understand how important this is.”
Quinn’s political opponents have questioned the timing of his announcement.
“I mean, we’re in a budget crisis,” said Illinois state Sen. Matt Murphy, spokesman for the Republican state appropriations committee. “We were back then. We have since been in a violence crisis in Chicago, and you look at this, and you say for political purposes, you’re taking precious and limited taxpayer dollars and spending them on political purposes rather than solving the violence problem in the city of Chicago. And it was wrong.”
* So far, $55 million has been spent on the governor’s “initiative,” which is about the same amount of money Quinn vetoed from the Department of Corrections’ budget. Quinn said he wanted to use that cash to fund DCFS programs. But maybe he could’ve used that anti-violence money instead.
I mean, which is more important, funding much-needed DCFS programs or paying kids to take yoga classes and march with the governor in a parade?