Policy and Practice: Will The Gap Ever Close?

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Youth workers’ lack of knowledge about and engagement in public policy issues has been noted time and time again at professional gatherings and publications, including this and other columns. I am not the first and won’t be the last to say that a vital youth-serving professional field needs stronger ties to policy development and implementation. Groups such as the National Assembly, America’s Promise, the Forum for Youth Investment and the Center for Law and Social Policy have taken on the challenge.

How bad is it? I contend that the average youth worker cannot name or describe the authorizing legislation that gives birth to his agency or program, if it receives public funding. The average youth worker probably knows next to nothing about coordination of state youth policies through youth councils or which programs in her state get federal dollars. The average youth worker may not have an informed (or even uninformed) opinion about income-targeting or age-targeting in youth programs, or the latest pressing policy developments in foster care, health, juvenile justice, work force development or after-school programming.

The average youth worker must be stupid or lazy, right?

A 1999 study by the Indiana Youth Institute, reported by the Next Generation Youth Work Coalition, found that the average youth worker in Indiana was 36 years old, had two children and earned $20,000 to $29,000. Only about half saw themselves staying in the field for much time at all.

A study released in 2003 by the City University of New York’s Workforce Development Initiative – “A Landscape Study of Youth Workers in Out-of-School Time” – found that 75 percent of youth workers wanted to remain in the field, but few reported seeing professional development opportunities.

What does this say? Youth workers are often disadvantaged and focused on just getting through the week. They leave the field at ever-expanding rates. A strong private-sector economy is one of our enemies when it comes to keeping employees.

What’s more, youth workers rarely get the chance to learn about policy through professional development opportunities.

This is a structural issue. We won’t make widespread progress on raising public policy awareness among youth workers until the field enjoys more support and development.

Public policy is important to youth-sector practitioners for three simple reasons:

First, voices from the field should play a dominant role in policy development and reform efforts, but rarely do. Large youth-serving groups with paid lobbyists can influence policy, but the vast majority of single-site local programs are left out of the process. This isn’t a gap, it’s a chasm.

Second, policy gives life to programs. But the rules and funding methods built into legislation often structure program designs and practices in unintended and undesirable ways. A classic example is performance-based contracts. While well-intended under a “pay for results” mantra, this kind of contracting encourages programs to meet performance objectives by “creaming off the top” rather than bringing in more highly vulnerable youth. Workers must understand the policy incentives that control their lives.

Third, policy offers hope for sustainability. There is no better way to help excellent programs institutionalize or promote replication than through policy support cobbled together from local, state and national sources.

While youth workers know all this, they don’t apply it in their day-to-day work. We typically hear program managers say such things as, “I don’t have the resources to get involved in policy reform”; “I’m not sure it’s part of my job”; “The legislative arena is just too complex for me to understand, much less have any impact on”; and “I don’t have the power or influence to make a difference with a legislator.”

This disconnect is so troubling that a number of efforts are under way to better link policy and local practice. America’s Promise and the Forum for Youth Investment have launched a useful Youth Policy Resource Center. Here at the Heller School, we are launching a new master’s degree in public policy with a concentration in youth policy. Groups like the Oakland-based PolicyLink have worked for years to bring “equitable growth” strategies to the attention of neighborhood groups.

Youth workers aren’t stupid when it comes to policy. The rest of us are stupid for thinking they can take on public policy issues without special assistance and without making broad changes in how the profession operates.