The Cost of Being Certain

Karen Pittman
September 1, 1998

Certainty, not cost, is what under girds public support for measures that lock teens away for life. And certainty, not cost, is the key to any effort to build sustainable community resources to support youth development.

Cost-effectiveness research is certainly important: showing the short-term and long-term benefits of investment, the benefits of investing in one strategy over another, the benefits of doing something versus nothing. But in the end it is certainty that is needed.

There's the rub. It is not entirely clear what, if anything, the general public is certain that all youth need.

Until recently, the one certainty for adolescents in the U.S. was schooling: the right to an adequate education. But increasingly, the rights of individual young people are being threatened. Zero tolerance policies have cut off the educational options of high school, middle school and elementary school students suspended or expelled for breaking school rules about drugs, weapons or violence. Education is headed down the slippery slope toward becoming not a right but a privilege.

This willingness to suspend individual educational rights in the name of the larger good reflects the development of a new certainty for U.S. youth: jail. Cost is not the issue. Certainty wins hands down. Tolerance for experimentation with lower cost alternative reform efforts approaches zero. Evidence that get-tough measures neither reduce recidivism nor increase individual reform falls on deaf ears.

But this makes sense. This new youth certainty is driven not by research or public opinion about what youth need to develop, but about what communities need to thrive. It is a reality that youth and community advocates are learning to live with. Partnerships with law enforcement (like that crafted by Eugene Rivers in Boston) attest to the robustness of an approach that acknowledges that "some kids" have to be removed, but fights then to define the strategy for reaching and engaging those who stay.

This new certainty for adolescents stands in contrast to the certainties held for their younger siblings. For infants and preschoolers there is a widespread certainty that constant, consistent supervision, nurturing and stimulation from adults are critical for healthy development. Affordability and accessibility issues remain, but we are way past the point where anyone would consider unbundling this package. The struggle is about how to deliver this package and who pays.

The non-negotiables for toddlers seem to be bottom line needs for school-age children and adolescents as well. Recent interest in and funding for after-school programming offers a toehold toward some positive certainties for young people. But, as discussed in the July/August issue of Youth Today ("Youth Agencies Clamor to Stay After School"), there are problems. The dollars flow through the schools, making collaboration with youth-serving organizations who have been in the after-school business for years optional. And there will be an ongoing debate over the balance of academic and non-academic activities.

In the article, Jane Quinn, Program Director at the DeWitt Wallace-Readers Digest Fund, urges us, "Don't blow this chance." If we focus the debate on who runs the programs and who controls the dollars, we will. We need a massive public education campaign that gets young people and parents across this country defining what and how much they need and how and where they want it delivered. Let's get the market educated.

The reality is that if we want scale and sustainability, schools will have to be involved — and probably in the lead. Youth workers can help define and deliver on quality, but we won't get that chance unless we get the public to articulate the certainty that school age young people must have safe, supervised, nurturing, stimulating places to go, people to talk with and broad possibilities. That mandate will give the youth services and additional leverage for influencing quality and contributing to the development of an integrated system.

Pittman, Karen. "The Cost of Being Certain."Youth Today, September 1998, p. 63.

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