Convinced that the Younger Americans Act (YAA) is the legislative marker that could finally put youth development on the map? You are absolutely right. But are you right for all the right reasons?
If enacted and fully funded, YAA would create a new state block grant funding stream of $500 million in 2002 (growing to $2 billion in 2006) that would flow through community boards and area youth agencies to programs that "assure that all youth have access to programs and services that build the competencies and character development needed to fully prepare the youth to become adults and effective citizens."
This is no small deal. Inadequate, uncertain public funding has crippled the development of a system of community-based youth services in this country. Advocates, all advocates - child care, health care, child welfare, family supports, crime prevention, gun violence, mentoring, education, workforce preparation, community development - should be calling for its passage.
But YAA is more than a dedicated funding stream. It lays out a clear, strength-based vision of what young people need and argues that they need these things all the time, not just after they have gotten into trouble. It also establishes a non-governmental National Youth Council and an Office on National Youth Policy. The associate commissioner for the Family and Youth Services Bureau, within Health and Human Services, oversees the YAA state allocations. The office's director sits within the Executive Office of the White House, a perch that gives the office potential neutrality and clout. And it builds in youth participation. One-third of the national council members must be under 21, a requirement that, if leveraged, could significantly alter the tone and focus of recommendations.
Understandably, these provisions are sometimes dwarfed when the YAA story is told. They need serious air time. It is the vision and the structures, more than the funding stream, that begin to bring the U.S. into the same league as countries that have coherent national youth policies.
What is a national youth policy? Let me quote from the source: Commonwealth Youth Charter, created by and for the 51 Commonwealth Youth Ministers. "A national youth policy is a framework for planning and action for all agencies and organizations involved in youth development which explicitly accommodates the particular practical and strategic gender needs of young men and women." To be effective, the ministers say, that framework must be supported by:
- A national action plan that provides a comprehensive statement about programs and actions to achieve the national youth policy.
- A lead agency in government that holds responsibility for coordinating youth matters across government.
- Government machinery to achieve a coordinated and holistic government response to youth development issues (i.e., an inter-agency committee, dedicated senior officials in each department).
- Consultative and participatory mechanisms with young men and women (e.g., a national youth forum, initiatives that acknowledge and reward the contributions of young men and women).
- A youth affairs collaborative mechanism fulfilling the role of a national youth council.
- An annual gender disaggregated youth budget which outlines the total contribution of government towards youth development across all ministries [federal departments].
- A youth development fund to finance national youth policy initiatives.
- Capacity-building mechanisms within the fields of training and development, professional networking and research.
In sum, the Commonwealth Youth Ministers gauge their programs on three fronts: national policy development (frameworks and infrastructure), human resource development (specific policies, budget allocations and analyses) and youth empowerment (mechanisms to ensure youth voice in all public discussions).
The Younger Americans Act does not embody the full policy plan for the "human resource development" of the country's children and youth. The 10 titles of the Leave No Child Behind Act provide that scaffolding. But the YAA provides the framework, establishes the lead agency, creates the coordinating structure, and lays the groundwork for sustained youth consultation and participation. Read it. Think about it. Work for it.
Karen Pittman is senior vice president of the International Youth Foundation. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.