I hate receptions and cocktail parties. One reason is that I am basically anti-social. Another is that I hate the inevitable question, “What do you do?,” which seems simple but is difficult to answer. In an effort to steer people away from thinking that I work directly with youth (something I haven’t done for going on 30 years), I often state that I do youth policy research. Then comes the question, “What is youth policy? Does the U.S. have a youth policy or a set of youth policies?”
The question has at least five answers: Yes, but, no, too many, too few. Which answer you offer depends on how you define youth policy – in particular, how you define youth development policy.
Yes, the country has youth policies. It has a series of policies put in place explicitly to address (or with specific components that address) the needs, rights and obligations of young people in the second decade of life (plus or minus two years). Education policies, juvenile justice policies, health services and health insurance policies, child welfare and social service policies, and rights policies combine to affect the lives of young people. (They also determine the age at which young people have rights to participate in certain “adult” activities, like employment, voting, drinking, driving and living on their own.)
But, these are only a subset of the broader compilation of national, state and local policies that affect young people, their families and their communities. Youth advocates may not have seen the tax cut discussions as extremely relevant to their legislative agendas. But child care tax credits, health insurance coverage changes, school vouchers and overall tax cuts may have more to do with young people’s opportunities for development than federally funded 21st Century after-school programs and the proposed Younger Americans Act.
No, the U.S. does not have a comprehensive set of youth policies or even a single lens through which it assesses new and existing policies. There are multiple competing policies and agendas.
Too many of these policies approach young people as problems to be fixed, or victims to be protected.
Too few of these policies strengthen the organizations and programs that focus on how well young people will be prepared or how fully they will be engaged – especially organizations that work with youth voluntarily outside of the formal education system.
Each statement is true. But where is the best place to begin if we are concerned about promoting youth development? Are all policies that affect young people, families and communities (child support, health/mental health) fair game because families and communities are the primary settings for development? Should those concerned about youth development count every policy that specifies 10- to 24-year-olds as worthy of inclusion, because many of these policies actually thwart young people’s development by including them too early (prosecuting 13-year-olds as adults), excluding them too early (ending child care tax credits at age 13) or over-regulating needed information or services (reproductive health)? Are youth development policies only the subset of policies and programs that help prevent problems and support young people’s preparation and participation (e.g., gang/delinquency prevention, school improvement, the Workforce Investment Act)? Or, even more narrowly, are youth development policies the subset of policies that would expand supports and opportunities for young people in the non-school hours (such as the 21st Century Community Learning Centers)?
There is no doubt that the current policy landscape leans heavily toward protection (of young people from abuse and of adults from abusive youth) and problem prevention. There is no doubt that the dollars for preparation and participation flow heavily through the educational system. There is no doubt that community-based organizations – especially those trying simultaneously to protect, prevent, prepare and engage – have been chronically undervalued and underfunded. Battles are often fought over where money should flow. But the bottom line should be about who and what the money is for.
Sitting in Washington, I have overheard discussions of omnibus bills that would not have included the Younger American’s Act, and discussions of creating youth development policy platforms that would have included little else. Both policy pictures are too narrow.
The environmentalists turned a corner when they began to argue for the forest rather than individual trees. We need to stake out our forest and begin to do the same for children and youth.
Karen Pittman is chairperson of Youth Today’s board of directors and executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment.