Where Is the Youth Czar?

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First there was the drug czar, followed quickly by the auto czar, the climate czar, the health czar, the urban czar and the cyber czar. According to http://PolitiFact.com, President Barack Obama has appointed 28 czars, each one in charge of White House policy on the most important and pressing issues facing our nation.

When announcing the selection of Carol Browner as the energy czar, Obama transition director John Podesta stated, “When you have problems that really cut across a swath of agencies, it’s very important to have a strong central place within the White House where people can work on the same strategy and make sure that actions are keyed up and accountability exists.”

If those are the criteria for appointing a czar, then it is time for a youth czar.

Youth policy is one of the most complex issues facing our country and is in desperate need of attention from the White House. We have immediate concerns, such as the high-school dropout crisis, that threaten the long-term stability and success of our country.

The current federal response to the challenges faced by young people is best described as haphazard, scattershot and any words in the thesaurus under “messy.” As an example, the stimulus bill passed by Congress in February contained billions of dollars for a smattering of programs targeted at kids, such as: $100 million to purchase equipment for the school lunch program, $225 million for youth mentoring to prevent crime and $1.2 billion for youth employment services. These examples alone come from three different federal agencies.

What have been the results of this funding? Have the programs been successful at meeting their intended purposes? What exactly are their intended purposes? Why were these programs chosen over the hundreds of other programs that serve youth? The guiding principle of federal youth policy appears to be, “You’re never lost if you don’t care where you are going.”

There have been several high-level attempts to improve the management and coordination of federal programs that serve youth. The White House Task Force on Disadvantaged Youth, established in 2003, sought to create a national youth policy framework with a focus on enhanced agency accountability and effectiveness. The task force issued a report that identified 339 youth-related programs spread across 12 federal agencies. Not surprisingly, the programs were found to be fragmented, duplicative and largely lacking evidence of effectiveness.

While most of the task force recommendations have been ignored, a few have been implemented and are showing promise. The Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs was established in early 2008 and is in the process of creating a website (findyouthinfo.gov) that consolidates all federal youth-related content in one place. While the phrase “new government website” doesn’t typically get me excited, this is a step in the right direction and deserves support.

Likewise, Shared Youth Vision, headed by the U.S. Department of Labor, is an example of an important initiative to bring improved coordination and collaboration to federal youth programs.

While these efforts are helpful, progress will be slow and modest without a permanent presence at the White House to ensure, as Podesta said about the energy czar, that “actions are keyed up and accountability exists.”

During the opening days of the Obama presidency, the Forum for Youth Investment, FirstFocus and the National Collaboration for Youth led an effort to encourage the White House to create an Office of Children and Youth. Powerful friends on Capitol Hill joined the effort, including Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and the late Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), and Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Dale Kildee (D-Mich.). Unfortunately, no action has been taken to create such an office.

If the White House fails to act on its own, then passage of the Federal Youth Coordination Act could force the president’s hand. The legislation, introduced in June by Rep. John Yarmouth (D-Ky.), would create a White House Office of National Youth Policy to “develop, coordinate, promulgate, oversee the implementation of, and evaluate a National Youth Strategy to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of youth services.”

I’m confident that a town hall meeting focused on this bill would be downright civil.

Without a dramatic change in course, federal youth policy will continue to consist of hundreds of disjointed programs, serving similar populations but tracking different outcomes. The White House needs a point person who can be responsible for answering a very basic question: What is our national strategy for helping our youth grow into successful adults?

Jon Terry is a former staffer for U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and president of Capitol Youth Strategies LLC in Washington, D.C., whose clients include the Search Institute, the YMCA of Greater New York and Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD). He blogs about youth policy at http://pydreport.org.