08/16/2011 06:47 pm ET | Updated Oct 16, 2011

Kirsten Gillibrand Plugs Urban Jobs Act In Queens

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) swung by Jackson Heights, Queens on Tuesday to push a bill she hopes will address the daunting problem of youth unemployment. Called the Urban Jobs Act, the legislation she is sponsoring would send non-profits $20 million nationwide in its first year to give 18 to 24 year olds skills training, mentoring, GED preparation, and more.

The money would be targeted, Gillibrand said, “to help connect the at-risk youth to the jobs that are available now.” Gillibrand’s office estimated that 39% of young blacks and 36% of young Latinos looking for work nationwide were unemployed in July.

For Giovanni Matos, a 22-year-old Latino who has been involved with one such non-profit, Make the Road New York, since he was 14, the senator’s visit to the group's headquarters was welcome news.

Matos described his sometimes troubled teen years. He dropped out of Grover Cleveland High School, he said, because “it never seemed like any of the teachers were dedicated to the work they were doing.”

Then Matos dropped out of another high school, and gave up on working towards a diploma altogether, before the prospect of spending 45 days on Rikers Island for a misdemeanor made him realize he needed to finish his education. Matos said that with the assistance of Make the Road, a community organizing group, he was able to complete his degree at Bushwick Community High School. Make the Road’s youth newspaper also gave him an opportunity to develop his writing skills.

“Make the Road saved my life, literally,” said Matos, who now works as a youth organizer for the non-profit. “I’m from Bushwick. I know what it’s like to have to duck from the window because you hear gunshots ... but Make the Road taught me that there's way more important things than Bushwick. Bushwick needs its help, but Bushwick isn't the only place in the world.”

Compared to some of his peers, Matos is lucky: 200,000 black and Latino youths in New York are out of work and out of school, according to the organization.

The relatively small amount of money Gillibrand is hoping to allocate under the Urban Jobs Act won’t be enough to solve the crisis, even just in New York City, acknowledged Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director of Make the Road.

"The most important contribution" the act could make, she said, would be “raising the flag of how deep of a crisis we have."

“We want to show that the program can work,” Gillibrand said. “If this program turned out to be wildly successful, we would go back and ask for more funds.”

Louis Soares, director of the post-secondary education program at the Center for American Progress, said youth programs were a particularly good use of job and skills training funds because “it's harder to re-engage you in educational activities” the further people move away from their time in school.

Non-profits like Make the Road focus on trying to convince youths not to drop out, and, if they do, trying to help them obtain a GED.

“Catching these folks closer to when they drop out, if you can't stop them from dropping them out and engage them, is a good idea,” Soares said.

Andrew Sum, a Northeastern University professor who studies the youth workforce, said Gillibrand’s program was “barely a drop in the bucket," given the magnitude of the youth unemployment crisis. Right now, he noted, the United States is 6 million jobs short of where it would need to be just to stack up to youth unemployment in the year 2000.

Job and skills training, he said, would only go so far because “the biggest problem is there's just a massive job shortage.”

Sum argued that something on the scale of Rep. Jan Schakowsky’s (D-Ill.) $227 billion jobs bill would be needed to help solve the crisis. He also said he prefers money be spent on wage subsidies for private employers as opposed to funding non-profits, since the former are more likely to offer permanent employment. But he does not oppose an all-of-the-above approach: “we need job creation, plus wage subsides, plus these connecting activities when the jobs are there,” Sum said.

Yet getting any of the above passed in Congress may be tricky. The fiscal year 2011 budget passed by Congress in April cut workforce development programs by 15.3 percent.

Gillibrand hopes to amend her Urban Jobs Act to the re-authorization of the Workforce Investment Act, which is still winding its way through the U.S. Senate. So far neither Gillibrand's bill nor its House companion, sponsored by Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), have attracted any Republican supporters in Congress.