Time for a 180 on Youth Advocacy

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FirstFocus, the advocacy organization affiliated with the America’s Promise Alliance, recently released “Children’s Budget 2008,” a comprehensive guide to the more than 180 youth programs funded by the federal government. The report says that from 2004 to 2008, the share of the federal nondefense budget going to youth programs declined by nearly 10 percent. While it is fashionable to simply blame the president or Congress for the funding decline, the blame should be directed at youth advocates, myself included, who have failed to present elected leaders with a coordinated and comprehensive solution to the major challenges facing America’s young people.

Despite what you have been told, there is no coordinated youth policy agenda in Washington. Current youth development advocacy efforts are best described as shortsighted, narrowly focused and fragmented. Volunteer groups want more money for volunteer programs. After-school groups want more money for after-school programs. Health groups want more money for health programs. The closest thing to “coordination” is when one organization asks others to attend a briefing on Capitol Hill focused on its issue.

During a recent visit to Capitol Hill, I met with a senior Democratic staffer who works for a committee with jurisdiction over most of the federal programs associated with youth development. She shared with me a legislative agenda that had been handed to her earlier that day by a group of youth advocates who had flown to Washington for their annual advocacy conference. The agenda contained 11 policy “priorities,” each of which started with, “Increased funding for … .” The focus of the bullet points ranged from child care and health insurance to gang prevention and work force training.

The staffer indicated that she gets multiple youth policy agendas every week, each focusing on one, two or even 11 of the 180 programs included in the FirstFocus budget guide.

Compare this ineffective approach with an effort implemented by advocates in the science and technology sector. Galvanized by a 2005 National Academies report about the alarming decline in America’s performance in science and technology, a diverse group of scientists, educators and business leaders agreed to form a single nonprofit entity, the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI), to raise funding and “scale up” programs that have been shown to improve math and science education in grades K through 12. ExxonMobile contributed $125 million to NMSI, and numerous private foundations lined up to provide funding.

On the policy side, Congress passed, and the president signed into law, the America COMPETES Act (Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, And Science). The law authorizes $33.6 billion over three years to enhance science, math and technology programs across the federal government.

While I applaud the success of this initiative, I can’t help but feel a bit of envy. The science and tech folks have accomplished what the youth development field has failed to do. They identified and named a problem, rallied around a set of core recommendations to solve the problem, created a single entity to raise funding and awareness of the issue, and successfully communicated their message to key leaders in the public and private sectors. I can’t find any evidence that they ever held a splashy kick-off rally or a grandiose summit with a stage and balloons. They didn’t need a fancy logo or a celebrity spokesperson. They just got to work.

What is the youth development version of the America COMPETES Act? If ExxonMobile had another $125 million that it wanted to commit to youth development, what would it be spent on? What would a National Youth Development Initiative look like?

The Younger Americans Act is the closest we’ve come to a bill that could be considered a comprehensive and coordinated national youth policy. This bill, with a $5.75 billion price tag, never made it to a vote when it was proposed in 2001; it has not even been reintroduced in the current Congress. Lobbyists for the major youth-serving organizations have moved on to other issues. It is much too difficult to remain focused on the common good when there are so many individual needs to be met.

The success of the science and technology sector in creating the NMSI and passing the America COMPETES Act should serve as a model of what can be achieved by uniting around common goals. It is our responsibility to present private funders and government leaders with a bold, visionary, coordinated and comprehensive proposal to confront the challenges facing our young people.

Until then, we will continue with the status quo, with each group fighting for its piece of the shrinking pie.

Jon Terry, former deputy director for government relations and policy at the YMCA of the USA, is a Washington-based youth advocate and a lobbyist at Triangle2 Partners. jonterry@triangle2.org, http://www.triangle2.org.