Intervention services for youth are essential — and should be seen that way and funded accordingly. But it is not. As a result, we are all paying the price of letting our youth fail. We simply cannot continue down this path of ignoring a serious and growing problem. Especially, when we know there are cost-effective solutions compared to current approaches and funding decisions.
For various reasons, adult intervention services have come to be viewed as essential. We have an unwritten social contract that implies it is in our best interest to help adults who aren’t functioning in a healthy pro-social manner. Consequently, we intervene when adults are chronically unemployed, when adults have alcohol and drug problems, and certainly when public safety is at risk.
Few would disagree that such intervention for adults is a worthwhile approach. While it is difficult to pinpoint an exact dollar, here in Minnesota the state conservatively spends an estimated $1 billion each year on adult intervention. In contrast, in 2016 the state government is funding youth intervention services at $3.25 million per year. That funding level clearly shows intervention has yet to be accepted as an essential service for youth.
With limited resources at every level of government, not every request that comes in front of an elected body can be funded. But increasing funding for intervention services for young people is possible if legislative bodies began to think differently about funding streams and impacts.
Using Minnesota again as the example, let’s say the state spent on youth intervention services a mere 1.25 percent of the $1 billion spent annually on adult services. That represents approximately $12.5 million, which would reach nearly 40,000 youth each year in community-based programs compared to the current 10,000 youth reached.
While $12.5 million is a lot of money, we know intervention programs can reduce criminal behaviors among youth. It can also improve classroom behaviors and promote similar outcomes associated with becoming a productive and contributing adult member of the community.
Let’s look at incarceration costs savings alone:
- In 2010, Minnesota spent $395 million on prisons. With an average of 9,500 prisoners per day, that represented $41,364 per year to incarcerate an adult. This means Minnesota spends $12.5 million to incarcerate 300 adults each year.
- If less than 1 percent of the 40,000 youth who would be served by intervention programs with additional funding stayed out of prison when they became adults, we would recoup that $12.5 million.
Put another way: With outcomes achieved by intervention services for youth, the adult prison population could easily be reduced by 300 inmates and that savings would make up the $12.5 million investment. The potential savings is mind-boggling when you take into account intervention outcomes that reduce the need for other adult services (e.g. substance abuse).
Contrary to what is often portrayed in the media, most lawmakers want to fund worthwhile causes. They would like to have the resources to help where they can. But they know they don’t have the resources and can’t fund all requests. It presents an impossible dilemma to lawmakers everywhere.
Some lawmakers respond to this challenge by wanting to fund a little of everything. They do their best to ensure across-the-board funding increases, even if that means minimal increases for all programs. While done in good faith, at the end of the day most programs go without the resources needed to make a serious social impact.
Other lawmakers respond by deciding it is best to invest in only a few funding areas. They know it is impossible to fund everything and a small increase will not have a major impact on any one particular program.
With these two responses so prevalent in our legislative process, the only possible result is legislative gridlock. This gridlock simply leads to funding the status quo that is letting too many youth fall through the cracks. Gridlock begets more gridlock, and thus we are stuck with an unsustainable government. Using a cost-savings lens can break this gridlock.
Lawmakers need to understand that their current responses to limited resources are ignoring the needs of young people at-risk of unhealthy development. By failing to look at the big picture, their responses actually cost us more money. Worse, it means we are failing our youth.
We, as a society, have a moral imperative to help our young people succeed. There is also a fiscal policy imperative: intervention services for youth can actually reduce annual government spending at the national, state and local levels while increasing our future taxpayer base. Intervention is a way to make our government more sustainable.
Considering intervention for youth as an essential service is the solution to many of our social and fiscal problems. It is time that lawmakers at all levels of government understand that helping youth is not something that makes you feel good; intervention is an essential service.
Paul Meunier, executive director for the Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA), oversees its advocacy and professional training services. He served as the mayor of Ham Lake, Minnesota, after being city councilman and has spent much of his career working directly with high-risk youth.
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