4-H in a Pickle Over Youth Work Priorities

Bill Howard
March 1, 1996

They were underachievers doing poorly in class until signing up for a 4-H after-school course in the circus arts — and learning how to juggle.

"All of a sudden these at-risk kids could do something the achieving kids couldn't do," said Evelyn Broohyser, the Oregon State University 4-H extension agent stationed at Newport, Ore.

"The juggling caught the rest of the school population off guard. That was five years ago. Sixty percent of the 125 kids who started are still in the program. Now they're staging shows for paying audiences and doing better in school: their parents seem to be connecting better to them — and their teachers. It's worked out real well."

Except for one thing. Despite its apparent success, with cessation of U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) funding this March, the Kid Konnection serving Lincoln County — home to the Oregon Coast Aquarium and the whale Keiko who starred in the film "Free Willie" — is scheduled to go out of business in June. Broohyser hasn't been able to find sufficient local backing to pick up the $100,000 annual cost to continue the program next fall.

Seventy-five miles away in Mill City, which is suffering from a fading timber-based economy, there is a different story. Its at-risk youth program has blossomed into a broad-based community development effort that 4-H agent Gary Stevenson says is being taken over by a well-financed local organization, the Santiam Canyon Youth and Family Alliance.

"Initially we tried to Just target at-risk kids but we found it was impossible to work with them without doing family development kinds of things. We've also been creating institutions like neighborhood organizations and after-school programs that help protect kids and reduce risk factors. This is a real scenic area (located near Salem in the Cascade Mountains) and we're now developing a youth entrepreneur program based on tourism, a storefront business. I'd say our project has been pretty well received overall."

Shaking a Rustic Image

The two Oregon projects are among more than 100 funded in almost every state by the USDA to help kids at risk of school failure, delinquency, pregnancy and other woes. They were launched in 1991 and 1992 for five-year periods. The aim: to move 4-H more into the at-risk youth-serving world and help shake its "traditional" rustic image of cows, cooking and county fairs.

Although 4-H has been on the inner city scene since the 1970s in places like post-riot Detroit, the new at-risk initiative is still subjecting segments of the vast 4-H system — especially at the state and county levels — to culture clashes. A 1993 survey of 500 4-H extension agents by the Minneapolis-based Search Institute found only 29 percent who believed their state 4-H systems had a clear plan for expanding youth at-risk programming at the county level.

Forty-one percent of the respondents agreed that "in choosing to serve disadvantaged youth we risk alienating the traditional supporters of extension." One of the problems early on, says Search's Dale A. Biyth, research director, was semantic. "4-H agents didn't know what youth at-risk meant and how you integrate it with existing programs."

Kirk Astroth, a 4-H specialist at Montana State University's Center for 4-H Development, said the "at-risk label alienated a lot of people, prompting fears 4-H was going to dump the traditional programs and just work with kids in detention centers and with pregnant teens." The absence of clear direction is a continuing headache in many states.

Mill City's Gary Stevenson explained the dilemma of 4-H youth workers: "The current philosophy in Oregon is that there will be no difference in the at-risk programming and the traditional programming. And it will be done at the community level by the same agents.

"I don't know how that will work. It's definitely two audiences and two separate skills. If it involves taking money away from the traditional program and using it with the youth at-risk program, I think there would be a lot of resistance — especially if it means shutting down some traditional 4-H programming, or putting somebody out of work. I don't think anyone has a problem when at-risk youth programs are budgeted through grants or additional funding from state or county governments.

"The philosophy they're using in Oregon right now may be the best approach in that there's an expectation youth development will be looked at in a more holistic sense of community development and family development. And by doing that you are able to collaborate with agencies that do youth at-risk programs and still sustain traditional stuff. Well see."

Until now, the at-risk youth program has not been a threat to traditional programs because projects were funded by USDA grants, thanks to special annual appropriations from Congress of $9.8 million. As the grant period runs out. project managers have been competing with all available funding sources to remain in business.

Mixed Results

Leah Cox Hoopfer, director of children, youth and family programs for Michigan State University's extension, headed the national at-risk youth program when it started up in 1991 and is pleased with the results. Programs were developed competitively according to priorities agreed upon by county, state and federal 4-H interests.

Many involved collaborations. In Lincoln County, Ore., for example, 4-H teamed up with six public schools and the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts for the Kid Konnection, which besides juggling teaches tightrope walking, balancing, acrobatics and working out on the trapeze. The teacher was a former circus performer in the U.S., Mexico and Europe who possessed all of those skills.

“The really positive thing about the national program is that the grants went to highly under-served areas outside 4-H's traditional constituencies," Hoopfer said. In Michigan, grants were awarded to after-school programs in Kalamazoo, Ingham and Washtenaw (Ann Arbor) counties that were designed as safe havens offering youngsters experiential learning.

"They are very popular. We have, with a very small investment in professional and para-professional services, generated a lot of volunteer time."

Mixed results have been reported in other areas, such as South Dakota. A day-care center created in Flandreau. A town of 2,300 where many people work at a 24-hour-a-day casino, has been a big hit with its 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. hours and low user fees. The center was handed a $200 check by Gov. Bill Janklow during a recent visit and is expected to continue thriving after its USDA grant ends, according to 4-H state program leader Gary Heusel, who formerly ran the 4-H Council.

On the other hand, Heusel said, a youth center started on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of the Sioux nation may go out of business because of staffing problems — some related to cultural differences between staff and residents.

Currently part of USDA's national Children. Youth and Families At-Risk effort, which is being administered through USDA grants to state 4-H extension services, youth at-risk started out with a $7.5 million appropriation and has been held to the $10 million level ever since. It took only a small hit, to $9.8 million, in the FY 1996 budget war between the Republican-run Congress and President Clinton.

How successful all the projects have been to date at finding sponsorship to remain in business — acquire "sustainability" — isn't known, or has yet to be determined, according to Nancy Valentine, who heads the at-risk program for USDA's 4-H Cooperative Extension System. Asked what percent of the 1991 projects would continue, Valentine said, "I don't have an accurate guess without going back to the records of what the projects have sent in."

Who's Steering the Boat?

That Valentine isn't counting beans — and confusion is rife over what the future holds — seems characteristic of the near century-old 4-H's leadership approach. As the nation's largest youth-development organization with 5.9 million participants aged 5 to 19, around 7,000 youth workers and nearly 700,000 adult and youth volunteers, 4-H has no central management.

It is supported by federal, state and county tax dollars, by corporate and private donations and by numerous foundations such as W.K. Kellogg. No one entity holds the balance of fiscal power, however, to dictate policy.

Thus state 4-H organizations function autonomously. They pick and choose programs through state advisory committees and 4-H Foundations that raise money for state and county programs.

USDA's regular 4-H youth development annual appropriation of $62 million is matched by state legislatures in state grants to state and county 4-H extension agencies. Many states and counties more than match the federal subsidy. Another $200 million or more may come from the private sector.

Richard J. Sauer, president and CEO of the National 4-H Council based in Chevy Chase, Md., just outside of Washington, D.C., estimates that "if you added up all 4-H nationwide, all public and private funds, it would be at least between $300 million and $400 million." USDA officials say that figure is pretty accurate though no one knows the exact amount.

Sauer's total, incidentally, does not include another $200 million that the USDA Cooperative Extension Service receives in federal tax dollars for other activities, nor the $400 million USDA pays out to support state land grant colleges that operate the extension service.

A Block Grant Role

The National Council, privately funded at $16 million a year, is in the vanguard of broadening 4-H demographically and geographically. It also is reaching out for a leadership role to "lower the turf walls" at both the national and local levels between private youth-serving agencies and promote more collaborations when and if the $2 billion Youth Development Community Block Grant (YDCBG) is approved by Congress.

"We're making a leap to a totally new mission and purpose, not simply an incremental change and improvement in what we were doing," Sauer told YOUTH TODAY. "Our mission up until 1994 was marketing 4-H to raise funds for developing and conducting a national program. Our mission now is building partnerships for community youth development programs that value and involve young people in solving issues critical to their lives and their families and communities."

One of the council's first moves was to dump sponsorship of the annual 4-H Congress that brought young people together from all over the country for an awards presentation to standout performers in a myriad of programs so profuse that he likened it to a "candy store." A main reason for dropping it:

While 4-H boasts a membership that Sauer said is 28 percent minority youth, "we found that the kids coming to the congress were only 5-8 percent nonwhite — more kids from the white rural communities were being selected than from the inner cities." Corporate sponsors on the council's board, in turn, decided to "relate more to the diversity of today's young people and support other things with us than this particular awards and recognition system." They also killed the council's long-standing international youth exchange program.

The national 4-H Congress isn't dead: however, evidence of the clash between the traditionalists and those in the at-risk youth camp persists. "There's a passionate group of 4-H folks from quite a few states who are trying to keep that congress going," Sauer said. "They actually ran two this past year — one in the South and one in the West. And there's a new national congress planned for next year in Memphis by a team of state and county folks."

How to Justify Public Funding?

4-H clubs have their competitive roots embedded in the late 1800s. Back then they were called "corn clubs," "canning clubs," "boys' and girls' nature clubs," says Norman Brown, a former 4-H state director in Michigan and Minnesota and a casual historian of the agency. "The clubs were instigated by government agricultural agencies and educators to introduce innovation on the farm," he added. "Sons and daughters were given seeds that produced better crops than their parents were growing. It got their attention."

From competing with their parents farm youth went on to compete with one another at county and state fairs in raising blue ribbon sows, cooking, sewing and eventually in every conceivable activity — from electronics to woodworking. And, says Brown, they were abetted by "volunteer leaders who ate up the competitive stuff." But the awards system is on the wane in urban 4-H programs.

Only 12 percent of 4-H'ers live on farms these days; half the membership resides in towns and cities — 19 percent of them in central cities of over 50,000 population. The changing demographics, along with cutbacks in state funding of land-grant college extension Services, has given the National Council's Sauer cause for thought.

"If you were to defend 4-H on being just another good youth organization like Scouts and many others, which it is, how do you justify that this particular one continues to receive public funding?" he wonders. "Its been around a long time. There's political support.

"I think there is an opportunity to play some kind of a role that serves the needs of all youth organizations. We have this enormous delivery capacity with a paid staff person in essentially every county. If I could articulate a vision for 4-H it would be to have youth development folks in extension play that critical role for communities and devote some of our efforts on training staff to build the skills needed for process facilitation and in convening collaborations and so on. It could be powerful.”

But will Sauer's vision come to pass?

He doesn't know. One thing is apparent, however, over 4-H's long history: it is extremely slow to change. Only when government subsidies dry up entirely might it have to scramble like other youth agencies to survive.

Freelance writer Philip Bulman contributed to this article.


Nancy Valentine

Youth At-Risk Program Leader

4-H Extension Service/USDA

South Bldg.

14th and Ind., S.W.

Washington, DC 20250


Christie Phillips

National 4-H Council

7100 Connecticut Ave.

Chevy Chase, MD 20815


Lyn Godsey/Evelyn Broohyser

4-H Kid Konnection

29 SE 2nd St.

Newport, OR 97365-4496



4-H in a Pickle Over Youth Work Priorities: 4-H When and Whys

Howard, Bill. "4-H in a Pickle Over Youth Work Priorities."Youth Today, March/April 1996, p. 28-30.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.