Columbine’s Shadow Shades U.S. Budget

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One big-picture impression emerged from weeks of federal budget bickering in Washington: the robust U.S. economy has not spurred Congress to turn fiscal year 2000 into the Year of the Child.

Youth advocates saw few heartening trends in this year's protracted budget process. "It's not a bold, new day for youth," said Miriam Rollin, public policy director of the National Network for Youth (NNY). "America is supposed to have been turning its attention to youth, but I don't see it reflected in many of the appropriations."

As the budget wrangling neared its end late last month (two months after the new fiscal year began), happiness was sometimes defined as ending up with the same funding as last year, especially after House Republicans threatened to cut many youth-oriented programs.

There was one exception: programs dealing with school violence.

The budget negotiations showed evidence of a Columbine Effect on the national mood, with school shootings a major concern to ordinary Americans. An October Washington Post poll showed school security as voters' greatest concern after health care, and Congress responded. It increased funding to $611 million for the Department of Education's Safe and Drug-free Schools programs, well beyond the president's $591 million request.

Not all youth advocates applauded. Sanford A. Newman, president of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, said the obsessed focus on the Littleton, Colo., shootings represented misplaced priorities. "In an average week 40 kids are killed by violence. That's over 150 Littletons a year," Newman said. "Ninety-eight percent of the children killed by violence are killed outside of school.

"It's time for our elected officials to wake up and smell the coffee."

But lawmakers' minds were on schools and the hours immediately after class. School-based after-school programs also got strong support, even from otherwise tight-fisted Republicans. Though less than the $600 million the president requested, Congress more than doubled, to $450 million, the appropriation for 21st Century Community Learning Centers after-school programs.

"It's a plus," said Helen Blank, director of child care for the Children's Defense Fund, "but there's still not enough for after-school programs."

Other youth advocates questioned if the focus on school-based programs leaves out many troubled youths. "Are you reaching to kids who are most at risk?" asked Rollin of the NNY. "The kids who are pushed out or drop out - they are the kids who won't be touched by the education budget."

It was widely noted that funding for Title XX Social Service Block Grants, which include money to states for child protection and other youth services, was cut from $1.9 billion in 1999 to $1.77 billion, well below the $2.38 billion the president requested.

School-based programs that help children from low-income families also fared well, with increases in school breakfast and lunch programs. Also rising: funding for Head Start and runaway youth programs.

But in a late compromise, the White House and House Republicans agreed on a 0.38 percent, across-the-board spending cut. "The across-the-broad approach has a double-whammy effect on youth services, because they tend to be shortchanged in the first place," said Karabelle Piczigati, director of public policy for the Child Welfare League of America.

All budget figures cited in this article and the accompanying chart are based on reports from the budget negotiations in mid-November; they were still subject to change as the budget juggling continued. Other than how across-the-board cuts would be handled, unresolved issues between Republicans and the White House did not appear to involve youth programs.

Roller Coaster

Even with the wrangling ending, many who track federal spending on youth issues, whose programs depends on it, said they will welcome a rest from the up-and-down ride.

For example, youth employment advocates went through a cycle of emotions only to end up largely where they were last year. A new administration proposal, $75 million for youth employment training grants called Youth Right Track Partnerships, never made it out of committee. Congress threatened to eliminate Youth Opportunity Grants, a $250 million program for employment training in economically distressed areas. Eventually the appropriation was restored.

The National Youth Employment Coalition wanted the White House to request more than its $1 billion request for year-round and summer youth programs under the Workforce Investment Act. But after threatening cuts, Congress agreed to the $1 billion, leaving funding for these programs roughly the same as in 1999.

"We were hoping that the administration would ask for more, but then when it appeared that Congress wanted to make cuts, we were happy when the funding was put back to what the White House asked for," explained coalition deputy director David Brown.

But the roller coaster ride was not over for agencies awaiting funding that comes from the special earmarks inserted in House and Senate appropriations committee reports.

For example, in reports on Department of Justice appropriations, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is instructed to fund more than $37 million worth of "discretionary" spending on a list that includes relatively well known or presumably identifiable youth-related programs, like $3 million to the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges to provide "legal education in family and juvenile law"; $1.9 million in support for five groups that provide law-related education programs; $1.3 million for the Suffolk University Center for Juvenile Justice in Boston; $1million for the Youth Crime Watch Initiative of Miami, Fla., and $5 million to the National Guard's Youth ChalleNGe Program.

A few of the earmarks remained a mystery. OJJ staffers said they did not yet know the location of "Mount Hope Center" to which they must grant $3 million "for a youth program."

Robbie Callaway, senior vice president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, admitted he was quietly smiling as the budget wars wound down, with a $50 million appropriation for the B&GCA under the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance. The B&GCA's annual appropriation, which started out as an earmark five years ago, rose from $40 million in 1999, said Callaway, eager to explain the money's use: "Last year, we opened five new clubs a week."

Others in Washington harked back to the bigger picture - and how the nation's priorities seem to shape up in these times of plenty. "It seems odd in an era of budget surpluses," said Thom Campbell, assistant director of public policy for the YMCA, "that we are not investing in kids they way we should."