ST. PETERSBURG — Wengay Newton believes firmly that with more jobs and resources available for young people, they'll stay out of trouble and follow the right course.
At a news conference Tuesday, the City Council member stood side-by-side with U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who announced a summer jobs program grant of nearly $200,000 targeting Childs Park-area teens who come from low-income housing.
The Summer Youth Internship Program's aim is to provide 100 jobs to youths at a time when the economy is horrible and the community has been shaken by violent crimes perpetrated by teens. Last year, the program was minimally funded because of budget cuts, but more money was provided through an earmark Castor received in the 2009 Omnibus Appropriations bill Congress passed last month.
Newton, 45, considers himself living proof of the success of summer jobs programs. Growing up in a low-income household with a single, working mother, he thrived through a summer jobs program offered by the city of St. Petersburg. He credits it with much of his success later in life.
"I can tell you personally a lot of kids my age weren't working. They were getting pregnant or breaking into houses. This kept me doing the right things and learning," he said. "An idle mind is the devil's workshop."
The mood at the announcement Tuesday was somber with many thoughts dwelling on the shooting of 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton. She was killed Sunday night by stray bullets that police allege came from Stephan C. Harper, 18.
"This could not happen at more poignant time, with the terrible tragedy over the weekend," Castor said. "When young people have an opportunity to gain a little experience at a job where they're working all day, they're much less likely to get in trouble," she said.
The program will match residents, ages 16 to 24, with various private employers. Most jobs will pay $7.21 an hour.
The wage will be split between the grant and the employer, who will provide $3.60 per hour and the rest will be paid by the grant.
The grant represents a political boon for Castor, a relatively new member of Congress elected in 2006. "We thank you for bringing home the bacon," Newton said.
City Council member Karl Nurse said Castor's procurement of the funds represents the shepherding she has received from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as a way of guiding new members of Congress.
The $410 billion spending bill the funding comes from was laden with earmarks for special projects in congressional districts.
Researchers can't conclusively say that economic opportunities alone will deter youth from crime, but one University of Florida professor said it can certainly help.
"An area like this suffers from what sociologists call concentrated disadvantage," said Ronald Akers, who teaches criminology and sociology, referring to the Childs Park and Bartlett Park areas.
"With more single family households and where unemployment is high there is a greater risk for delinquent behavior."
Adding jobs for youth, Akers said, provides a protective layer and helps the young generation build social capital with exposure to training, education and role models. But he cautioned that jobs alone are not a cure-all.
Angel Starling, 21, who worked an internship at a preschool through the program in the summer of 2006 after her senior year of high school, said that it helped to prepare her for college and the work force.
"It taught me responsibility and consistency," she said. "Plus, it gave me a little cash in my pocket."