The Benson Index

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In 1963, federal economist Mollie Orshansky devised a formula for measuring income adequacy and poverty in this country. The measurement was named the Orshansky Index and has been used for decades to determine eligibility for federal assistance programs.

It’s time for a new index, one that doesn’t measure economic security but provides an assessment of a community’s success at providing young people with support, empowerment, boundaries and opportunities.

This new index would be called the Benson Index, named after my friend Peter Benson who died this past week .  He introduced me to the concept of positive youth development and the importance of caring relationships. ‘Relationships are the oxygen of human development,’ he said.

During our conversations, Peter would point out that our national perspective of young people was incomplete and heavily skewed to focus on issues such as sexual activity, drug use and violence.    The Benson Index would help provide a fuller and accurate picture of youth in this country.   The index could be a number, or a score or a grade and would provide a snapshot of the presence of community supports available to young people, such as intergenerational relationship, caring neighborhoods, adult role models and opportunities for youth to join adults in enhancing community life.

Many cities already have some form of the Benson Index in place.  Bucks County, Pennsylvania, issues a ‘Student Support Card’ to report how the community is doing in providing support to the local students.  On the other side of the country, Ventura County, CA, publishes the Creating Asset Rich Environments (CARE) report every other year to document how well the county is providing young people with supports, opportunities and high expectations.  Over the coming years, these communities need to be the standard, not the exception.

As our country continues to face economic uncertainty and high unemployment, the Benson Index is especially important and timely.   Lifting young people out of poverty depends on changing their contexts – the people, places and settings that shape their economic and developmental fortunes.  The Benson Index can help with this.

I would want the results from the Benson Index to be posted at the city limits of every town in America, similar to the ‘fire danger’ needle you always see before entering a national forest.  If the needle is in the red, you know that young people aren’t getting the support they need. If the needle is in the green, then young people are thriving.

Local chambers of commerce would use the index to show businesses and families that the area is a great place for kids to grow up.  Presidential debates would focus on how well the candidates improved the Benson Index in their home state. The NFL wouldn’t host a Superbowl in a city unless the local Benson Index was above a certain level.  You get the idea.

In early 2010, after spending a day together meeting with offices on Capitol Hill, Peter and I grabbed a drink before he headed to the airport.  I asked him what was the next ‘big thing’ on his horizon.  Peter described his vision of being a ‘troubadour for youth,’ traveling the country and mobilizing communities to embed youth in networks of caring adults.  His goal was to engage ten million adults from all walks of life to develop sustained, caring relationships with children and adolescence both within families and in neighborhoods.

One of Peter’s favorite phrases was, ‘If you breathe, you are on the team.’  He used these words to encourage and empower all adults to play an active role in supporting and caring for young people.  You don’t need to be a professional youth worker, or a teacher or even a parent to get involved.  Everyone has a role to play.

Peter will not get the chance to play the role of national troubadour and any hope of fulfilling his vision relies on the rest of us choosing to know, name, move toward, care about, and connect with young people in every neighborhood of this country.

If you breathe, you are on the team.

Jon Terry is president of Capitol Youth Strategies, a government relations and advocacy firm based in Washington, D.C.