As the Obama administration commits to creating jobs through the federal stimulus package, some people recall programs from the War on Poverty and the New Deal as possible models for this recession. One such project, the Neighborhood Youth Program (NYC), which ran in the 1960s and 70s, provided work experiences for youth 14-21 years old.
In 1971, when Mary Schreiber was 14 years old, she got a job through the Neighborhood Youth Corp (NYC), for $1.60 an hour. The NYC was an offshoot of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.
According to a Minneapolis Star article from 1971, the NYC offered 8,000 jobs per year for Minnesota youth from the program’s inception in 1964. In 1972, federal funding in Minnesota for NYC reached $4.7 million.
The youth built bridges, tutored elementary school students, worked at a Model Cities farm, did office work, and even ran a drama group at the YWCA. They worked with nonprofits such a Pillsbury United Communities (PUC), on public projects such as at Fort Snelling and along the Mississippi River, and in the public schools.
Schreiber said in a telephone interview that she had an NYC meeting every two weeks, where she would get information from the program’s coordinators. She’d fill out her time sheets and paperwork, and get paid. “It was pretty organized,” Schreiber said. “I always got my paycheck.”
After first working at an elementary school in the Corcoran neighborhood, Schreiber’s second job with NYC, at Fort Snelling, was her favorite. Schreiber said she shared a bus stop with the men who went to the VA mental health clinic.
Schreiber also worked at South High School, answering phones. She said the experience was invaluable. “It really showed me what it was like in the workday world,” Schreiber said. “I learned people skills. I learned there is a way to answer the phone, to deal with co-workers. It’s different than a high school gym.”
Schreiber said her most valuable lesson came when she was working at South. Her boss, Joe Polunc, was very nice, but very strict. Schreiber said that when she was didn’t show up one day, and was late the next, Joe fired her.
“I pleaded for him not to fire me,” Schreiber said. Rather than getting her kicked out of the program, Polunc transferred her to Minneapolis Housing. “I didn’t like it,” Schreiber said, “but, boy, did I learn a lesson.”
There were two types of NYC programs: those for students who still attended school, and those for dropouts. According to a 1974 article in the Minneapolis Star, the NYC programs for dropouts were seen as less effective.
Tony Scallon, who worked with Pillsbury United Communities at the time, and still does as the superintendant of PUC’s Minnesota Transitions Charter School, said in a telephone interview that the problem with many of the youth programs he has seen over the years, is that they were temporary, with little follow through.
“The programs would work for awhile, and then they would fade away,” Scallon said. “There were missed opportunities. It’s one thing to get a couple hundred bucks working at a job. It’s another thing to have a quality experience that leads to something else.” Scallon also blamed the shoestring budgets.
“It’s a good thing,” Scallon said, “But we should be more careful about how we do it. It needs to be long term, or even if it’s short term, just connecting kids with an employer is not the answer.”
Jan Hively, PhD, currently a researcher and social entrepreneur, worked for the Riverfront Development Team with the City Planning Department in Minneapolis in 1972. Hively said in an email that the Neighborhood Youth Corps assigned a team to build the paths, stairs, and footbridges along the downtown riverfront from the Pillsbury A Mill to what is now the Stone Arch Bridge. Hively said the youth learned work habits and can-do, hands-on skills – “adapting what they did to the terrain and the materials they had to work with.”
Hively said that she believes a similar work program that is combined with academic learning should be in place now. She also said there should be a program similar to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) of the 30s and early 40s.
Joe Musich, who was an NYC crew supervisor at Loring Nicollet Alternative (LNA) , said the youth workers at LNA did mostly cleanup work and maintenance. He said that, while they were not necessarily learning college prep skills, they were “getting money to help pay the bills and help their families.” He said the problem today is that all young people are put on the college track whether they have the skills or can even afford it.
Musich, who currently teaches at South High School, said he had a very positive feeling about NYC. He said that while there are currently government programs creating summer jobs for youth, the NYC “had a whole lot more investment in year round employment.” He also noted that because Minneapolis public schools have changed their start time to later in the morning, youth have a harder time earning money in after school jobs, because they don’t get out of school until later in the afternoon.
In 1973, the Nixon Administration began dismantling the War on Poverty programs, spelling an eventual end to the NYC programs.
Perhaps we should reexamine the NYC both as a model, and as a history lesson about what worked and didn’t work. How can we create a strong program that would help at-risk youth transition into the work force? How do we make such a program sustainable? What kinds of jobs are best suited for this type of program? And how do we make these programs most worthwhile for both youth and organizations?
Sheila Regan is a theater artist based in Minneapolis. When not performing or writing, she serves as educational coordinator for Teatro del Pueblo.