Plentiful Pork

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At a time when the federal government increasingly demands that youth-serving programs prove their effectiveness through evaluations in order to get funded, more federal money is going to programs based on their lobbying clout and political connections.

The trend becomes clear through an analysis of congressional earmarks, or “pork,” designated for youth programs in the fiscal 2005 budget: Nearly $696 million is going to 1,363 projects, according to a database compiled by Youth Today. That’s an increase from last year of $133.1 million and 441 projects. (picture of pigSee chart.)

That growth reflects an explosion of modest amounts of money going to most agencies, while the vast majority of the dollars go to a smaller crop of favored organizations. There are 284 earmarks that exceed $500,000, and they account for almost $515 million, or 74 percent, of the total pot. That includes groups such as Alaska Youth Advocacy Center ($2 million) and the Paul and Lisa Foundation in Essex, Conn. ($500,000).

Only $181 million was doled out to the other 1,079 projects – from such programs as Kids Kicking Cancer in Birmingham, Mich. ($25,000) to Project H.O.M.E. in Philadelphia ($150,000).

The analysis also shows how earmarks are geographically skewed toward agencies in states with influential members of Congress. Some 50 percent of the earmarks goes to seven states that account for 37 percent of the nation’s zero-to-24 population. Pennsylvania, for instance, has about 4 percent of that population but got 10.5 percent of the youth-related earmarks.

In contrast, the proportions of money distributed for youth services through several nationally competitive federal grants more closely mirror the population of young people in the states. (See maps, page 43.) To be sure, youth agencies that get earmarks believe the money helps them do good work for youth. But earmarks have been taking up bigger and bigger slices of the federal youth work budget in recent years, cutting into money that would otherwise be available through competitive grants, which are widely accepted as a more equitable and cost-effective way to spend taxpayer dollars.

Government watchdog groups, President George W. Bush and some members of Congress have decried the earmarks as harmful to the budget process and to efforts to steer money to programs that have proven themselves through evaluations. “Congress overrides the decisions of federal and state officials in deciding who will receive government grants,” says Heritage Foundation budget analyst Brian Riedl. “Every grant recipient determined by Congress leaves one fewer grant that can be distributed through the competitive application process to the most qualified applicants.”

But with foundation grants and state funding dropping over the past few years, more and more agencies have watched other groups win earmarks and have bellied up to the trough – figuring that if money is being given out that way, they shouldn’t sit idly by.

How It Works

The youth field’s earmarks reflect a boom in the art of pork procurement throughout the country. There were about 11,000 earmarks in the fiscal 2005 federal appropriations, more than five times the number in 2000, according to the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.

For youth programs, the earmark process begins with a request for money made by an organization to a U.S. senator or representative. The pitch is often made by program administrators, but is increasingly being done by lobbyists. For example, Beacon Consulting in Washington lobbies for Metropolitan Family Services of Chicago, which garnered a $100,000 earmark in 2005 to run programs for at-risk youth.

The money earmarked for an organization is usually found not in the final appropriations bills passed by Congress, but in “conference reports” that accompany those bills. For its analysis, Youth Today combed those conference reports for earmarks to youth-related agencies or for youth work and entered them into a database.

Earmarks are usually drawn from the discretionary funds of a particular federal agency. Many people on Capitol Hill – most vocally, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) – deride the process as a way to reward political supporters and generate positive headlines back home at the expense of more public and methodical administrative processes that have been established to dispense federal money.

Others, most notably Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), see no problem with the process. And their constituents see the money as well-spent.

“We requested it through our congressional offices … as everyone has the right to do,” says Sanja Bolling, executive director of Parents Inc., in Alaska, which got a $600,000 earmark for a mentoring program. As far as she’s concerned, the earmark comes from “completely different funding sources” than competitive grants.

Where it Goes

Most earmarked money goes to states that are home to powerful members of Congress. Among this year’s youth-related earmarks, half the money went to seven states: California, Pennsylvania, New York, Florida, Ohio, Illinois and Alaska. One trade-off for circumventing the competition by winning earmarks, however, is instability. Earmarks can disappear as fast as they are bestowed. Only 215 of the groups receiving 2005 earmarks got earmarks in 2004. About 80 of them got earmarks for each of the past three years.

Even groups that stay in the money can never be sure what amount they’re going to get until the nail-biting appropriations process is complete. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges got a $3 million earmark in 2001 and in 2002, through the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). In 2003, it got $4.5 million.

But the past two years brought only $1.75 million each, forcing the council to cut its three major operations by 40 percent. And the council isn’t a run-of-the-mill recipient, either: Half of its earmarked money goes to its data retrieval system, which it created for the government.

“We used to apply for competitive grants all the time,” says Jim Toner, a long-time administrator who is recognized as the dean of the council. “But with all the earmarks” in OJJDP’s budget, he says, “there’s very little room for bidding competitively.”

Long-Term Impact

Riedl predicts that as more agencies seek earmarks, “eventually, there will be nothing left for those who want to use the competitive application process. … You create a situation where earmarks become the only way to get a government grant.” The growth of lobbyists to help organizations win earmarks has driven up the stakes considerably, Riedl says. “It reminds me of the nuclear bomb race between countries. Nobody wanted a nuclear war, but once another country has a bomb, then everyone else feels like they need to. It’s the same thing with hiring lobbyists.”

As a result, many nonprofits vying for earmarks use tax-free dollars (donations) to pay a for-profit lobbyist to secure taxpayer dollars the organization may or may not be able to receive in an open competition.

But those hoping for a departure from this process can’t be excited by a case like that of Kids Voting USA. Its director, Chris Heller, detests the earmark system but has received $1.5 million in pork over the past five years. “We’d like to not rely on earmarks,” says Heller. “Earmarks are a short-term funding strategy, and a weak one. But I like them more than not getting funding at all.”