Wages, Worth and the Budget

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Like people in any occupation, youth workers and managers take a keen interest in their own wages. The only thing that can be said with certainty about compensation in the youth field is that it’s low. There is little hope of substantive improvement, particularly for those who serve low-income youth and their families.

The reasons are both complex and simple. The complex part is grasping why Americans are so reluctant to invest in other people’s children. Poll the public on just about any worthy youth-related question (such as education, healthcare, after-school programs or job training), and people will respond with lots of support. But not on Election Day. In January, for instance, an Oregon referendum (Measure 28) gave citizens a stark choice: Raise taxes by $9.50 per taxpayer, or cut everything from state troopers (by 100) to days in class at public schools (by up to five weeks). The message was resounding, with 55 percent voting against the tax increase.

The paycheck consequences of this peculiarly American contradiction between professed beliefs and actual behavior regarding those who work with low-income youth are clear. Wages are too low now and unlikely to rise faster than inflation. A youth worker in a juvenile justice agency (typically working nights and weekends) earns about two-thirds of the average high school teacher’s salary (the latter of which is $45,370, according to the U.S. Department of Labor). A new study by the Center for Public Service at the Brookings Institution found that 22 percent of all human service workers serving low-income communities earned less than $30,000. Of the college grads doing similar jobs in prosperous communities, only 10 percent earned less than that amount.

A companion study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that “market demand for human service workers does not produce upward pressure on wages.” Absent the laws of supply and demand, it is the level of taxpayer-supported public spending that de facto sets the wages for virtually all youth workers, regardless of who their employers are.

The simple part is this: What enables the youth field to attract good staff is altruism, be it faith-based or not. Only 15 percent of human service workers, says the Brookings Institution study, rank salary as a “very important consideration in taking [their] current job.” An impressive 87 percent rank the opportunity to help children, youth and families as their primary job motivation.

Too bad the story doesn’t end there. The Casey study, “The Unsolved Challenge of System Reform: The Condition of the Frontline Human Service Workforce,” found deficiencies that “cripple all human service sectors,” including an inadequate supply of competent workers, low wages compared to similar jobs, a paucity of in-service training opportunities (beyond training in the procedures of an agency), few prospects for advancement and poor supervision.

The result is not just high staff turnover, but the loss of far too many of the field’s most talented young staffers. Random telephone interviews with more than 1,200 human service workers revealed their belief that half of the best workers leave the field entirely “within a couple of years” of entering it.

Says Paul C. Light, director of Brookings’ Center for Public Service: “The nonprofit sector has a work force it doesn’t deserve. It doesn’t provide the resources, support, rewards or respect these workers deserve. You can only abuse your talent for so long before they’re going to exit for greener pastures in the private sector or government. Sooner or later, this work force just isn’t going to show up for work anymore.”

The sad state of services in low-income communities is no happenstance. It stems from public policy decisions that are publicly arrived at. On Capitol Hill, the tax-and-spend liberals are debating the no-tax but-spend-anyway conservatives. Since 2000, the federal government has turned a $230 billion budget surplus into a deficit that is approaching $400 billion. The president’s Jobs and Economic Growth Plan calls for a $726 billion tax cut, which was opposed by 60 percent of Americans in a recent Associated Press poll. Under the president’s proposal, a millionaire will save about $89,000 in taxes. A single, $30,000-a-year youth worker will save about $40.

Even under the best-case scenario being considered by Congress, children and youth services will suffer steep cuts. For example, the president proposes cutting after-school spending by $400 million, eliminating a revamped $250 million Juvenile Justice Accountability Block Grant (aimed at diverting low-risk offenders from incarceration), eliminating nearly $11 million in dropout prevention programs and cutting the Labor Department’s Youth Opportunity Grants program by $140 million. And in April, the White House announced that it no longer supports the proposed spending of $1.2 billion in the president’s signature Faith-Based and Community Initiative, which would include many youth and family programs.

It does not take a soothsayer to figure out the math and the message for talented, early-career youth workers: Get out while the getting is good. In his Inaugural Address, President Bush declared, “Deep, persistent poverty is unworthy of our nation’s promise.”

But as all the spending cuts now underway at the federal, state and local levels take hold, the president’s Armies of Compassion may prove to be as illusive as Iraq’s Republican Guard.