Class Warfare (Youth Division)

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To many youth workers, federal tax policy is as remote from their everyday lives as Iraq is from Peoria. But they’d do well to pay attention to President Bush’s latest tax-cut plan, which would affect their livelihoods as much as any proposal on the national agenda.

To understand why, just look at the treatment of the labor force. One important way society conveys its respect for an individual’s work is through a paycheck. In much of the U.S. economy, the laws of supply and demand set values on jobs.

Alas, for those in the social service field (be they nonprofit, for-profit or public employees), that is not the case. Today, an estimated 7 million people work in a human-service field where market demand for services does not push up wages.

In 1998, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected a 41 percent increase in social service jobs over the coming decade, a growth rate three times as high as that of the overall U.S. work force. Yet today, even in the midst of a recession, many social service jobs go begging.

The reasons are not hard to fathom. Working conditions are often poor, caseloads impossible and managerial and political leadership wanting. To cite one recent example, the nation was once again appalled by a child protection horror story, this one involving three boys left to starve to death in a Newark, N.J., dungeon.

Much of the public wrath fell on a state Division of Youth and Family Services caseworker whose cases included those children. The Child Welfare League of America recommends a child protection caseload of 17. The errant New Jersey staffer’s caseload: 108.

Staff shortcomings of this type are caused primarily by a pervasive national underinvestment in our children. No amount of voodoo arithmetic can square the president’s latest “Leave No Millionaire Behind” tax proposal with the wages paid to youth workers. In child welfare, juvenile justice and youth services, entry-level wages are about $22,000 a year. Under the president’s tax proposal, the average childless youth worker could expect to save about $40. A program manager earning $40,000 would save about $118 if childless (and an additional $144 with a child tax credit).

On the other hand, youth workers pulling down a million dollars a year are in luck. They’ll save $88,873 in taxes. Not doing quite as well is President Bush: According to Bloomberg News, last year Bush would have saved $44,500. Vice President Cheney, on the other hand, would have pocketed $326,555 in tax savings.

While a cottage industry has grown up to convince Americans that corporate sponsors like Taco Bell, Timberland and Philip Morris (or President Bush’s phantom “Armies of Compassion”) are the bedrock of financing for the youth-services field, the truth is that local affiliates of many national groups such as 4-H, DARE, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the Urban League and YouthBuild would collapse without public funds. So, too, would tens of thousands of independent programs funded through myriad local, state and federal funders. Standing behind each of these funders is the American taxpayer.

According to a January Washington Post-ABC News poll, Americans favor, by more than 2 to 1, having the government pay for needed services over passing a new tax cut. In 2001, Congress enacted a $1.35 trillion tax cut. Now the president has a $674 billion “gift” for the country in the form of this latest proposed tax reduction.

For the Bush White House, a major benefit of the post-2001 reduction in anticipated federal revenues was the predictable wrenching downward of future spending on virtually every health, education and social welfare program.

Those cuts, along with the recession’s impact, are already being felt with predictable consequences. In fiscal 2002, 37 state governments reduced their budgets by a total of $12.8 billion. Now in fiscal 2003, the budget gap for all 50 states is $40.6 billion. Among the victims: In Minnesota, state funding for the Conservation Corps ends in June. In Missouri, a National Guard ChalleNGe program for school dropouts is scheduled to close. And in Massachusetts, YouthBuild in Worcester will come to an end.

This is just the lull before the storm. Even without new tax cuts, thousands of youth programs will soon disappear, and with them the heartening gains made in the ’90s against teen crime, pregnancy, drug abuse and other scourges.

Those programs that survive will be expected, as always, to do more with less. Wages will stagnate or even decline, while staff vacancies will grow and annual entry-level job turnover, already at 40 percent to 80 percent, will accelerate. A recent Annie E. Casey Foundation report said human service work is already the destination of last resort for talented young people. Only 21 percent of graduating college seniors expressed any interest in human service occupations.

In addition, recent college graduates have student loans averaging $16,928. Some 55 percent of African-American and 58 percent of Hispanic students carry what the State PIRGs’ Higher Education Project calls an “unmanageable level of debt.” No wonder youth programs have so much trouble finding minority youth workers.

The president can pout all he wants to about his critics engaging in class warfare. But the facts are that his latest tax proposal gives 28 percent of its benefits to the top 1 percent of earners, while the bottom 60 percent (that includes 99.9 percent of those 7 million human service workers) would divvy up only 8 percent of the benefits.

If this administration really wants to leave no child behind, it also cannot leave behind those who work on behalf of children.