Congressional Earmarks Fatten Children and Youth Agency

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In what may be the biggest chunk of pork ever fed to youth-serving organizations, the 2001 federal budget bestows at least $420 million in earmarks on agencies serving children and youth, according to Youth Today calculations.

They range from $9,000 to expand the after-school program at the Thirteenth Place youth shelter in Gasden, Ala., to $21.7 million for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Earmarks will help Shake-A-Leg in Miami ($250,000) create a youth recreation center, and help the St. Louis-based Parents as Teachers National Center to - well, they aren't sure yet how to spend their $2.5 million.

Is this process good? That depends. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) calls earmarks "an addiction to pork" and says they should be severely curtailed. Charles Ballard, CEO of the D.C.-based Institute for Responsible Fatherhood and Family Revitalization, calls his $500,000 earmark "a recognition by Congress of 18 years of toil and sacrifice."

Named after the colored markings on the ears of livestock (such as pigs), earmarks are funds set aside for specific organizations in congressional budget bills. They are controversial because they are bestowed without competitive bidding or evidence of a program's effectiveness; members of Congress typically insert earmarks for organizations back home in an effort to deliver federal dollars to their constituents and build political alliances.

On the other hand, earmarks deliver money for some valuable services much faster than the slow federal bureaucracy, and often help small agencies that would have difficulty competing in the sometimes complex grant-bidding process.

Take Thirteenth Place Youth and Family Services, a youth shelter (annual budget: about $340,000) that runs primarily on Runaway and Homeless Youth Act grants. The small after-school program operates every Tuesday in a housing development in a poor neighborhood. "I go out and beat the streets" for donations from individuals and businesses, says Outreach Coordinator Yvette Williams.

Such initiative paid off when she visited Washington, D.C., last year for a Child Welfare League of America youth symposium. She and a deputy sheriff from Alabama met with their congressman, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.). They explained her program and said it needed money to grow. Aderholt's staff asked for a letter proposing what she'd do with more funds.

Months later, Williams says, "I picked up the newspaper one Sunday morning and saw that I'd gotten $9,000."

That is not, however, the best way to win a six- or seven-figure earmark. Those often come after years of building a track record, forging relationships on Capitol Hill, and lobbying.

"We had no money for a long time," says Ballard of the Institute for Responsible Fatherhood. "We had to prove something first over a long period of time before Congress would invest in us."

He says the funds will be put to good use by helping the institute make "the public realize - along with children, young men and women, and families - that fathers count." (The Maryland-based National Fatherhood Initiative also received a $3.5 million in earmarks.)

Others appear stumped by their good fortune, like shocked lottery winners. Asked what he might do with a $2.5 million earmark directed by Congress through the Corporation for National Service, David Walker, president of the St. Louis-based Parents as Teachers National Center, says, "That's a good question. I'm not quite sure."

Upon reflection, he says, "I have several things in mind, including using funds for public awareness" campaigns.