America’s Overpaid Promise

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The February edition of Youth Today arrived one recent day, and as I do every year with this particular issue, I flipped right to the “pork” pages: the list of hundreds of organizations that have won congressional earmarks for youth work. I skipped to the “V” states because my organization is in Vermont, and because Virginia is the home state of America’s Promise.

I didn’t expect any windfall for us. The last time we received a federal earmark was 2002, when we got $147,000.

But there it was again: America’s Promise, with a $5 million earmark. Last year, I made the mistake of opening the February issue of Youth Today in front of one of my senior staff members. “Those - - - - s!” I blurted out. (Insert your own epithet.)

I immediately apologized. “No need,” she replied. “I agree with you.”

This year, I wisely read the paper in the privacy of my office.

It is hard not to be resentful of America’s Promise. Spectrum Youth and Family Services, where I am executive director, has a budget of almost $4 million, with approximately 40 different revenue sources. The revenue streams are on different fiscal years, each with its own arcane requirements, and with numerous fiscal and programmatic reports to complete. We usually have to compete against other nonprofits for grant renewals.

It would sure be nice to have one fat, lump-sum earmark like the one America’s Promise receives every year.

The other pill that is hard to swallow is the reality that several of the grants we have are federal. The Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB), under the Department of Health and Human Services, gives us $200,000 a year to support our transitional living residence for homeless teens. We started receiving the grant in 1994, and it has not increased one penny in 12 years, despite the fact that all of our costs have increased substantially.

Another FYSB grant, of $100,000, supports our outreach efforts to youth living on the streets. This grant started in 1996 and, like the first one, has never increased.

What’s more, we have to reapply for these grants every three years, which requires a mountain of paperwork, hundreds of staff hours, and lots of prayers that we will be selected again.

We also receive some federal Medicaid money to support our work with homeless teens. Last year, this wasn’t level-funded; it was reduced. We used to get money for mentoring from the Juvenile Mentoring Program (JUMP) in the Justice Department. This wasn’t even level-funded; the grant came to a complete halt, and we are at this moment scrambling for a way to keep this essential program in operation.

But America’s Promise, founded in 1997, gets $5 million a year. And to do what?

A quick Google search and review of its website shows that America’s Promise is the main promoter of something called Job Shadow Day, and that it gave five $20,000 awards to communities that aided victims of Hurricane Katrina.

But it seems that its main initiative this past year was to name the “The 100 Best Communities for Young People in America.” I could hardly pick up a newspaper last fall without reading about it.

Now that is ground-breaking youth work that will surely make a difference to the army of young people in this country who have no homes, families, diplomas or jobs.

Maybe I’ll run over to our 12-bed shelter and let the kids in on the news: “Hey everyone – your worries are over! America’s Promise has produced this list! Nashville, Old Town, Long Beach – this is where you should be living! Start packing now!” (Unfortunately, no Vermont city or town made the list. Otherwise, they could stay in the state.)

I’ve been working with at-risk and disconnected youth for 25 years, and one of the first and best supervisors I ever had warned me, “There is a huge baloney factor in this field.” (Actually, he used another word for “baloney.”) “You are going to run into many organizations claiming to do all kinds of wonderful things to help troubled youth. The reality is that very few are doing much of substance.”

He was so right.