Three years ago,Miami teenager Brenda Chavez dropped out of high school and quickly found herself on a road to nowhere. Looking for a leg up, Chavez applied to Job Corps, a federal job-training program for disadvantaged youths, to finish school and learn computer skills.
Job Corps turned her away, but not because she was ineligible, or because there was no space for her. Chavez simply happened to be one of 6,000 Job Corps applicants who, since 1994, were randomly denied access for the sake of a study designed to prove the program works.
Job Corps, a relic of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, is a $1.2 billion program that provides food, shelter, work clothes, health care, and job training to teens and young adults at 115 campuses nationwide. It has recently come under fire as a wasteful program; critics note its $26,000-per-student cost and 14 percent completion rate.
In 1993, then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich took action to fend off critics. He awarded Mathematica Policy Research, a Princeton, N.J.-based firm, a $13.3 million contract to conduct a five-year study of Job Corps; the study was later expanded to nine years and $17.9 million.
In order to properly evaluate the program's 68,000 participants (approximately 70 percent of whom are minorities), Mathematica assembled a control group. The best way to determine whether Job Corps works, the experts reasoned, is to see just how badly kids like Brenda Chavez do without it. So in 1994, Mathematica began withholding Job Corps' publicly funded services from one out of every 12 eligible applicants.
All applicants during the study's "random intake phase" -- from November 1994 to February 1996 -- were asked to sign waivers agreeing to participate in the study. But if they refused, they were simply rejected and told to reapply after March 1996. (This reporter served as a Job Corps admissions counselor from 1995 to 1997.)
Those selected for the control group were interviewed and then sent on their way, ineligible for Job Corps for three years -- Mathematica's policy allowed for no exemptions and no appeals. Researchers contacted control subjects again at 12, 30, and 48 months for follow-up interviews (for which the subjects were paid $10) to see how they were faring. Like all Job Corps participants, the control subjects had been determined by admissions counselors to be unlikely to find similar help at other programs, so researchers did not have high hopes. "We expect nonenrollees to engage in more criminal acts than the Job Corps enrollees," wrote John Burghardt, the study's project director, in a 1993 preliminary report. A later report included a formula to calculate the social costs of homicide -- if the control group had a higher murder rate, Job Corps could claim savings to society.
The Mathematica experiment has received scant attention in the press, but it has attracted some powerful critics. "Those denied will have their lives altered forever, for the sake of a study," wrote Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) in a 1994 letter to then-Assistant Labor Secretary Doug Ross. "It does not make sense."
In a 1995 letter to then-Rep. Mike Ward, Burghardt offered Mathematica's rationale: "Random selection...was the only method that would put the key findings...beyond dispute." Mathematica and Labor Department officials declined to be interviewed for this story.
Last September, in a class- action lawsuit filed on behalf of the control subjects, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy halted the study, ruling that Labor officials had skirted federal law by failing to subject the study's methodology to public review.
"I don't see many differences between the Tuskegee study and the Job Corps study," says Alan Blakely, the plaintiffs' lawyer, referring to a notorious study in which researchers withheld treatment from 399 black men infected with syphilis. "One was medical, the other is psychological, emotional, and economic -- but it's altering their future we're talking about."
The Labor Department has reached a preliminary settlement with the plaintiffs, pledging to locate the control subjects by 2000 and invite them to enroll in Job Corps -- if they are still eligible. Fifteen of the plaintiffs will each receive $1,000, not in damages but as reimbursement for providing information to the court.
"I think we deserve a settlement and an apology," says Chavez. "We were all guinea pigs." Chavez, now 20 (and still eligible), cares for her 11-month-old son and works at a photo lab for $5.70 an hour.