Opinion

An Unexpected Gift

The lead story in last month’s Youth Today was about the new report from the White House Task Force for Disadvantaged Youth (“Federal Youth Programs And Policy Taken to Task”). If I had my way, every issue for the next six months would include a section chronicling the work of advocates, government bureaucrats, foundations, program administrators and young people using the report to create discussions about prioritizing, managing and accounting for public dollars spent on disadvantaged youth.

To be sure, we can quibble with parts of the report. We should worry about underfunded evaluation demands. We should worry that “accountability” could become a code word for “cuts.” But, above all else, we should show our appreciation.

The report provides a timely opportunity to make needed changes in the management, coordination and focus of federal, state and local programs. The fear among youth work advocates that the task force would be used as political cover to cut program funding was not realized. The report recommended no funding reductions and was not used to justify any of the cuts proposed in the president’s recent budget plan (unlike last year, when an evaluation of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program was cited when the White House proposed cutting that program).

Instead, most of the report’s recommendations were for improving management and coordination – improvements advocates have repeatedly called for, through vehicles such as the Younger Americans Act and memos submitted to the task force at the beginning of its process.

The report was released without fanfare. Only a few hundred copies were printed. This is not because the White House or the task force were unhappy with the recommendations. It was because they did not have a sense that there was a constituency to move on them.

There are four reasons that, youth advocates cannot afford to let this impression stand.

• We have to show our strength. There is a need to demonstrate to senior Bush administration officials that the report did have a ready-made audience, that many advocates are watching closely to see which recommendations the administration advances, and that there is an organized constituency that cares about disadvantaged youth. Failing to do so will undermine the willingness of the administration or Congress to take positive initiatives on children and youth issues.

• We have to show our efforts. Many aspects of the federal government overhaul that the report outlines are already under way within state and local governments. The report opens an opportunity to create a dialogue with states and localities that could bring visibility and legitimacy to restructuring efforts in some states, including Iowa and Oregon. The fact that very few state and local youth policy coordinators were aware of the report’s release highlights the need for better connections between the people improving coordination at the federal level and the people improving coordination at the state and local levels.

• We have to show our sincerity. We must stand up and be counted in conversations that are not about more funding, but about better management and coordination. The Younger Americans Act devoted roughly one page to the creation of a national central coordinating office and roughly 15 pages to the creation of a coordinated funding stream. As a member of the National Collaboration for Youth, I believe I speak for all of us when I say that if our voices are not heard loudly in this conversation, we will be greeted with suspicion the next time there is an opportunity to discuss increased funding for community programs – if there is a next time.

• We have to show our values. It is time – no, it is past time – for the youth work field to reconcile its commitment to all youth with its commitment to those most in need or most likely to be forgotten if they are not targeted. Equally important, it is time for the youth field to reconcile its commitment to providing educational alternatives with its commitment to transforming education.

The report acknowledges that these are two areas that need further work. Beyond the issue of program evaluation, these are two of the most important issues that a long-term government initiative needs to resolve with the help of the youth field. But we have work to do in order to be ready to accept the invitation.

The story about the task force report in Youth Today noted that several of the people interviewed used the expression “the devil is in the details” in weighing its potential impact. It is time to congratulate the task force and get in the door to start shaping those details. This report is the best blueprint for policy change we have. It is an unexpected gift, and a pretty good one at that, even if some of the pieces need work. Let’s say “thank you” and get on with the task of figuring out how to use it.

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment. This article and links to related readings are available at www.forumforyouthinvestment.org.

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