A while ago, I heard Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) give a speech related to youth, and I have to say it could have been given by his conservative friend Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). As a father with two young girls, Obama bemoaned the fact that they were often exposed to undesirable messages and images on TV, ones that could lead them into harm rather than away from it. He was also pretty harsh on some of the lyrics in popular music, as I recall. As a father of two girls growing into adolescence and the upcoming teen years, I have no doubt that Obama and his wife’s concerns are growing even more.
People are often shaped by their own experiences and the circumstances they find themselves in at any particular time. This is true of presidential candidates, as well. Those who have experienced great suffering, for example, often have a greater feeling and respect for others who are experiencing hardships, for the least advantaged and for those who overcome adversity despite huge odds against them. In many respects, I believe each presidential candidate will deal with youth issues based a lot on his own circumstances and experiences.
It is well known that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) suffered greatly during his years in captivity, but it is probably less known that he is a father of seven who has experienced the power and joy of adoption. Those who adopt are often motivated by their desire to help little ones who otherwise might have tougher roads to travel, especially those who already have biological children of their own. In part because of his own experiences and background, I believe McCain’s priorities in dealing with youth issues will focus first on those who are most disadvantaged, believing the role of government should be to help those most in need first.
As only one of two U.S. senators opposed to earmarking (Coburn is the other), McCain, I believe, will encourage career professionals in the government to have more say in the grant-making process and discourage, as much as possible, members of Congress from giving taxpayer money directly to their favorite charity, whether the charity is effective or not. He wants to get the biggest return on investment possible. It would not surprise me if he looked at the structure of political appointments, for example, and decided that an operating division within the Department of Health and Human Services like the Administration for Children and Families has a disproportionate number of political appointees and reduce that number significantly, giving more oversight to seasoned career professionals.
While he is a supporter of No Child Left Behind, I believe he would also look at the value of after-school programs in disadvantaged neighborhoods more seriously than his predecessor. And he would not be afraid of alienating anyone if resources needed to be shifted in a way that would give the least able the most opportunities. He will continue to look for resources to fund SCHIP (the State Children’s Health Insurance Program), as he has already sought to do.With the addition of Gov. Sarah Palin (R-Alaska) to the ticket, there will be even more emphasis placed on the neediest of children, especially special-needs children. While issues such as fatherhood, marriage, abstinence and the like will remain central themes, they, in all likelihood, will be eclipsed in emphasis by the expressed public concerns of the two Republican candidates. It will represent a significant change in how children are viewed, should McCain and Palin win the election.
Regardless, McCain’s foundational beliefs in family, faith, marriage, the importance of fathers (and mothers) in the lives of their children, abstinence education, protecting children from exploitation and pornography, and the like would be core elements to his focus on youth. His strength would be in making youth programs more effective and directing resources to the most disadvantaged among America’s youth. He will be a welcome change for those who want to see the most deserving and the most effective organizations receive government support.
Shepherd Smith is founder and president of the Institute for Youth Development, based in Virginia. (703) 433-1640, www.youthdevelopment.org.