Worthy Wages for Youth Workers

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Few topics are of more interest to youth service practitioners than insuring a decent income for face-to-face youth workers. Paradoxically, few topics get less discussion, thanks to poor prospects for improvement, fear in some quarters of unionization, and the self-fulfilling expectation by management that entry-level staff won’t stay long anyway, so why bother increasing their pay?

One field that shares many characteristics with youth work is at least bothering to try. Since the early 1970s, early child-care advocates have focused considerable political energy on raising the paychecks of the 550,000 people who labor in child-care centers. The results have been modest, with successes in raising wages in North Carolina, California, Philadelphia and Seattle.

Still, the efforts lead by the D.C.-based Center for the Child Care Workforce is instructive for workers dealing with an older (and less endearing) youth population. Spurred by the 1996 passage of welfare reform, the campaign focused on winning public support for decent wages as a way to raise staff qualifications and slow rapid staff turnover. But public support – even an endorsement by President Clinton at a White House child-care conference in 1997 – has yet to produce much of a bulge in the typical child-care worker paycheck of less than $19,000 per year.

The plight of youth workers is comparable. A statewide survey by the Indiana Youth Institute found that one in five full-time youth workers earns less than $20,000, 80 percent report “substandard” health insurance and 40 percent have no retirement plan.

But if efforts to raise child-care workers’ wages are disappointing, then pity those in youth serivce. There is no counterpart campaign among national and local youth- serving agencies. This is largely the result of a leadership failure by the largest national groups, who are best positioned to champion the cause of all youth workers. For most of them, organizational tunnel vision, not visionary leadership, is the order of the day.

These increasingly prosperous national youth groups can peddle themselves as cure-alls for delinquency, drug abuse or teen pregnancy until the end of the republic, but with entry-level wages of around $20,000 per year, there will never be a workforce capable of translating the promises in slick promotional brochures into reality.

The odds against a successful worthy-wage campaign for youth workers are steep. But the odds against the youth service winning a respectable place in society are insurmountable without decent pay for all youth workers.