It only makes sense for Marion Barry to be nostalgic. While still beloved by his constituents in Ward 8, his current position on the D.C. Council can’t be as glamorous as his three mayoral terms, and he’s best known as a a punch line outside of the region. Even the recent past was a little bit better for Barry — only a few months ago he was still a committee chair, and hadn’t been censured by his fellow council members.
A rose-colored view of the past may have led Barry to whitewash the truth. At an oversight hearing about Adrian Fenty's administration’s handling of the Summer Youth Employment Program earlier this month, Barry said the program’s problems began when Fenty took control of the mayor’s office.
After discussing how he started the program in 1979 and quickly got tens of thousands of young adults summer positions with local businesses and the D.C. government, Barry said: “Lo and behold, when Mayor Fenty came in, things got messed up.”
Considering how famously dysfunctional District government was throughout the 1980s and 1990s, we found it hard to believe that the jobs program’s difficulties only began when Fenty took office in 2007.
Sure enough, the program had problems right from the start. During his 1978 mayoral campaign, Barry promised to hire 30,000 youths each summer. A May 29, 1979 article in The Washington Post, titled "Barry’s Program Of Summer Jobs Is Short of Goal," outlines the difficulties his administration had finding 30,000 job offers and convincing Congress to fund the program.
Things only got worse once the program actually started. A Nov. 9, 1979 Post piece headlined "Probe Finds D.C. Youth Job Effort Chaotic" outlined the results of a congressional investigation:
• 534 of the 22,000 people on the program’s payroll either did no work and were paid, or worked and weren’t paid.
• Sixty eight people were hired despite being ineligible based on age.
• Nineteen prison inmates were allowed to work as part of the program.
• A federal Department of Labor official called the District’s program “the worst he had ever seen.”
The investigators also said the program appeared to focus more on providing as many jobs as possible to students, rather than providing quality jobs.They said the program would work better if it was cut in half.
The program subsequently shrunk, and although simple LexisNexis searches turned up articles about problems with the program in 1981, 1982, 1990, 1997 and 2003, none of these problems — 150 kids weren’t paid one summer, and the city alternately had too few or too many spots in the program — were as widespread as the ones encountered when Fenty opened the program up to all comers in 2008. Just as when Barry tried to expand the program decades earlier, problems quickly cropped up and disorganization reigned.
The program went over budget by $31 million, and more than 300 people who weren’t eligible — either because they weren’t the right age or lived outside D.C. — were able to enroll. Students went unpaid, and of those who were, some were targeted for muggings on paydays. The District’s director of employment services resigned, and Fenty took full responsibility for the havoc.
In the years since, payroll problems have continued, and the council and the media have looked at the program skeptically. Barry made this remark at the latest hearing, which was prompted by an emergency request to extending the program by a week and a half using federal stimulus funds and by transferring money from anti-poverty programs. (The council eventually voted to block the extension.)
After Barry’s initial missteps with the program, its most glaring errors had been fixed for decades. They only flared up again when Fenty, like Barry, decided to squeeze as many employees into the program as possible.
But he made it sound like Fenty was the first guy to throw a wrench into the whole shebang, and that's Only Kind of True.