Applied Economics

When I enrolled in a graduate school of social work many years ago, I found myself to be a distinct outsider – the only person in my class of 200 who had majored in economics as an undergraduate. While I’d been studying macroeconomics in my senior year, my fellow students had been learning about human development as psychology majors, or about social problems as sociology majors.

But three decades later, I see an opportunity and even a need for convergence between social work and economics. The state of the economy is stirring seismic changes all across the human services field, including youth work.

These dramatic upheavals in the country’s economic well-being have multiple causes: the aftermath of 9/11, large federal tax cuts, years-long stock market volatility and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Depending on whose analysis you believe, the reasons for the troubled state of the nation’s economy range from the vagaries of fate to a plot to “starve the beast” of government social programs.

For example, President Bush referred to the combination of recession, war and national emergency as an economic “trifecta” over which government had little control and which permits the accumulation of record deficits. On the other hand, in a book titled The Great Unraveling, Princeton University economist Paul Krugman argues that enacting large tax cuts and dramatically increasing spending on defense and nation-building are likely to force not only Great Society programs to founder, but New Deal entitlements as well. Krugman cites Medicare and Social Security as two potential victims of current governmental policies that, by creating large debts and future uncertainties, seem destined to require significant spending reductions.

Now I don’t claim to be an economist, but I do have something to say about how the current economic conditions affect youth work. Looking back over the past year, I have this mental image of myself and my colleagues at The Children’s Aid Society trying to find more fingers than we have to stick into the proverbial funding dikes. First, after-school programs were slated to be chopped. Then summer youth employment. Then AmeriCorps. And I am not even counting the proposed cuts in other programs we operate, such as Head Start, foster care, juvenile justice and homemaker services.

This round of cost-cutting proposals unleashed a flurry of legislative alerts from a variety of national groups, including the Afterschool Alliance, the National Association of Social Workers and Learning in Deed, along with similar groups at the state level. At some point, my attitude toward this plethora of heads-up notices turned from one of annoyance (“Don’t these people know I’m too busy to respond to so many ‘urgent messages?’ ”) to one of understanding and action.

I came to realize that I’d better exercise my rights by letting elected officials know how important certain endangered programs are to children and families.

The fact that youth advocates have successfully fought proposed dramatic cuts in many of these targeted programs testifies to the value of concerted action. But this is no time to take a victory lap. We need to understand that advocacy is central to youth work practice and to act on that understanding.

Fortunately, there are some excellent new tools that can guide our work. For example, the Finance Project recently published the Sustainability Planning Workbook, which is based on five years of development and field-testing with nonprofit organizations that operate after-school and community school programs. These tools are organized around eight key elements of sustainability, with an emphasis on building broad-based community engagement and rallying key champions, including business and government leaders, to support promising and proven initiatives.

When I was thinking about this need for all of us speak up, I ran across this wonderful quote from the novelist Alice Walker: “Activism pays the rent on being alive and being here on the planet.” We live in a world in which practitioners must also be proponents, activists and advocates. All of us need to connect the dots between our daily work with young people and the engine that powers and supports those efforts: the nation’s economy.

Jane Quinn is assistant executive director for community schools at The Children’s Aid Society in New York City. Contact: janeq@childrensaidsociety.org.


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