WASHINGTON -- The Labor Department has suspended new enrollment into one of the nation's largest job-training programs for low-income youths, citing cost overruns that Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and other critics have blamed on mismanagement.
The Job Corps enrollment freeze could close the door on as many as 30,000 young adults struggling in a troubled economy and could cost about 10,000 staff jobs, according to the association that represents private operators for the program.
More than 70 members of Congress from both parties have written to the department requesting explanations for the program's shortfall, which sources familiar with the budgeting process have pegged at $61.5 million. Two lawmakers have also complained to the White House.
The freeze comes as President Barack Obama began to promote his plans for job creation, job training and middle-class growth by taking his State of the Union address on the road last week.
Job Corps, which opened its first center in 1965, was a vanguard of President Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty. The free program gives young adults a chance to earn a high school diploma, receive vocational training or earn certifications in more than 100 specializations.
Democratic lawmakers following the program's budget issues say they are frustrated by the lack of a response from the Labor Department, which also halted enrollment briefly last summer and in December. Before 2011, the program had never halted enrollment.
"We need to know why it's happened and why they didn't consider other alternatives," said Mr. Casey. "Maybe it has nothing to do with the program. Maybe it's a management failure."
Mr. Casey, a Democrat and the newly appointed chairman of a Senate subcommittee that oversees Job Corps, said he plans to schedule a hearing "within weeks" to determine the cause of the shortfall, and he has requested an audit.
Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., whose district includes one of the largest Job Corps centers in the country, said he sees "evidence of mismanagement of money." He and Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, wrote to the White House on Feb. 6 complaining that the Labor Department had declined a House subcommittee's request to justify the cost overruns.
Labor Department officials said they paused enrollment after other cost-cutting efforts fell short. They expect the freeze, which started in January, to last until June 30.
"The decision to suspend enrollment was not made lightly," said spokesman Carl Fillichio, who emphasized that those already enrolled in Job Corps will be able to complete their training.
"Job Corps is conducting an exhaustive review of its current operating costs in order to make changes to ensure that program costs are sustainable in the future," Mr. Fillichio said.
The unemployment rate for young adults ages 16 to 24 was 17.4 percent in January. It was 28 percent for African-Americans in that age group, a demographic that made up nearly 51 percent of Job Corps students during the 2011 program year.
The National Job Corps Association, the group that represents the contractors that operate the job centers, has been highly critical of the freeze. It said 44,928 people are enrolled at Job Corps centers.
All told, the association estimates that the suspension of new enrollment could result in nearly 30,000 lost training opportunities nationwide. That projection is based on the weekly rate at which slots for new students open up at each center. It also says the enrollment suspension could cost up to 10,000 center jobs.
The estimates, however, do not include the exceptions the Labor Department has agreed to make for the homeless, runaways and those in foster care.
The Labor Department told a Senate oversight committee in July 2012 that its restructuring plan would help avoid future budget problems.
Instead, a deficit nearly twice as large occurred during the current budget cycle, according to the National Job Corps Association.