Battle Stations

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When the 107th Congress convened in January, supporters of positive youth development had great hopes for the Younger Americans Act (YAA), unveiled at a bullish Capitol Hill press conference last September. The YAA would establish a framework for a comprehensive national youth policy and direct 95 percent of its funding directly to local youth serving programs. If fully funded, the YAA would provide $500 million in its first year, reaching a total over four years of $5 billion. The rationale and nomenclature of the YAA incorporates the Five Promises (caring adults, safe places, health start, marketable skills and an opportunity to serve) of America's Promise-the Alliance for Youth chaired until January by Secretary of State Colin Powell.

At the September unveiling, Powell delivered a heartfelt endorsement of the YAA, based in part on his own lessons learned after three years of promoting youth work. The YAA, said Powell, is "belated recognition that the way to go after the problem with young people is not just through education programs or health and human service programs, but really getting down to basics. ... This isn't an act that gives a government agency here in Washington money to spend, it is an act that will allow that money to go out to youth-serving and other kinds of organizations all across America. ... But don't see this as just help from the government, see it as help from the American people. Help from their fellow Americans that will allow them to scale up all of these successful programs. That's the impact, the meaning of this act. We are going to help organizations all across America get into the lives of our youngsters.

"As a soldier in the Army, I never would have sent my troops into battle without a sense of mission envisioned, without preparing them, without giving them the equipment, the supplies, the weapons they need to be successful in the battle. Yet, every day we send American youngsters out into their communities to do battle, and they are not prepared. ... The preparation is very simple: Give them character in their hearts, give them a sense of place, let them know that we love them, we believe in them, we have expectations for them. We will give them whatever they need to deal with these enemies. ... What will win the battle is if we prepare our children for those battles. No child should grow up without having an adult role model, parents, a neighbor, [who] gets into the life of that child and points that child in the right direction. A lot of the organizations such as Boys & Girls Clubs and YMCA, Salvation Army - that's where kids go.

"With this legislation, with the funding that comes with this legislation, we will be able to scale [up] all of those programs. It is only right that in this time of wealth, this time of success, this time of surplus, that we ought to put another claim out there to compete with all the other claims that are out there. This is a claim to help the young people of America, all the young people of America."

With that kind of endorsement from arguably the nation's most popular political figure and the YAA's own sensible use of taxpayer funds, the legislation should be wrapped in a warm bipartisan embrace. But in this Congress, tax cuts trump all other non-Defense budgetary considerations. In the House, the YAA has mustered an unimpressive 46 co-sponsors, only 13 of whom are Republicans. In the Senate, the frustrated YAA champion, Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) couldn't round up enough GOP support to give the bill a fighting chance when he chaired the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

That's a far cry from Powell's final America's Promise message in January, when he wrote, "Congress and governors are making kids a priority."

Here are the actual priorities to date: Cut taxes by over $1.35 trillion over 11 years, mostly for those fortuitous citizens so amply blessed by America's bounty; reject spending money for repairing dilapidated schools; eliminate the Department of Housing and Urban Development's $306 million Public Housing Drug Elimination Program, much of it spent on youth development services for 2 million children; spend $234 million per year on 600 additional prosecutors, including 94 new federal juvenile prosecutors; spend $75 million on next-to-useless gun safety locks, and take $37 million to pay for it out of the $94.8 million prevention program in the Office of Juvenile Justice.

Just in case there's any money left over in the budget, the president will be requesting an additional $6-8 billion for the Defense Department's $310.5 billion budget. We wouldn't want to send our adult soldiers into battle without preparing, equipping or supplying them, would we? So far, says this president and Congress, the priorities for its younger Americans are enhanced prosecution, trigger locks and T-ball on the White House lawn.