Nationwide Budget Crunch Forces Cold Realities

Andrew Beadle
June 1, 2003

A Boys & Girls Club cuts its hours and reduces salaries. A recreation department institutes fees for programs that had been free. A YMCA sells a camp.

Those are some of the ways in which youth-serving programs are grappling with a worsening financial squeeze brought on by a weak economy, state budget cuts and dwindling contributions – all of which may leave a lot of kids idle this summer.

“With the current funding situation the way it is, in some states there are going to be fewer kids in summer activities,” said Ron Fairchild, executive director of the Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

The state budget crisis is the worst in decades, says the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, with states facing a total deficit of $100 billion for fiscal 2004. State spending is projected to decline by 2.3 percent this year compared with last year, and to decline again next year, center analysts said.

As a result, almost nothing is sacred when it comes to cutting programs.

“State legislatures have been very sensitive to funding programs for children, especially education,” said Gene Rose, director of public affairs for the National Conference of State Legislatures, based in Denver. But as “an indication of how serious the crisis is,” he said, at least 21 states are cutting spending on education programs from kindergarten through high school.

Especially hurting this summer are programs offered by local governments and nonprofits that rely on government funds – such as day camps (which essentially serve as day care for many parents), summer school and financial assistance to attend sleep-away camps.

“As the schools get hit, that trickles down to the summer program,” said Peg Smith, executive director of the American Camping Association. The ACA has accredited about 2,400 of the estimated 12,000 camps in the United States. “We’re estimating that one-third of the [accredited] camps have slow enrollment, and may be underfunded and under-enrolled” this summer, Smith said.
At Camp Hanover in Mechanicsville, Va., summer enrollment is down by about 75 compared with the same time last year, Director Bob Pryor said. He said his colleagues report similar declines at other camps.

Nonprofits that rely on donations and grants from other organizations are also seeing their incoming funds droop. The United Way, which supports programs through its 1,400 local offices, reported a 3 to 4 percent drop in donations for the 2002-03 campaign. The loss of $150 million (from the $3.95 billion generated a year ago) will be felt across the country, including at an estimated 40 percent to 50 percent of camps that receive funding, Smith said.

Subsidized camps and day programs generally cater to lower-income and at-risk kids. Those children are most likely to be affected by budget cuts, because their parents often can’t afford alternatives if their programs are cut.

“If I don’t have the money to send my child to camp, where is my child going to be?” asked Smith, a former director of the Indiana Youth Initiative. “With the reduced funding, you’ve got kids running around this summer without the guidance they need, and some of them may be the most at need.”

The ACA estimates that about 10 million children, youth and adults attend programs each year. More than half the camps are owned by nonprofit agencies, including youth and religious organizations, such as the Presbyterian Camp Hanover in Virginia and the Episcopal Camp Huston in Washington state.

‘Painful’ Decisions

Instead of eliminating summer programs, many agencies are initiating or increasing fees, said Erica Hamilton, a policy associate with the National Recreation and Park Association based in Ashburn, Va. The association provides technical assistance and advocacy for 21,000 agency members in more than 1,200 communities.

“Up until now, a lot of these programs had been low cost or no cost to families, so there could be universal access,” Hamilton said. “What it means is more low-income youth will not be served.”

For example, the City of Manassas, Va., raised its summer day camp fees to $230 from $175 per child. City recreation officials are concerned that the increase will force some lower income residents out of the program.

Nonprofit youth organizations are trying to address the problem in numerous ways, such as reducing staff or hours. The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Twin Cities in St. Paul, Minn., dropped a full day of programming in April, leaving its seven clubs open for only four days a week. Staff salaries and hours were cut by 20 percent.

The budget problems in St. Paul were driven in part by a significant drop in corporate and individual giving, club officials said, leading to a $300,000 shortfall. The cost-saving measures were expected to be reviewed for effectiveness before the end of May.

Others have resorted to more drastic measures.

The YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago used to run five camps, which offered traditional summer sleep-away programs and year-round activities. A declining stock market has reduced the YMCA’s endowment by $15 million over the past two years, and the organization recently faced a $16 million deficit in its $100 million-a-year operation.

In desperation, the YMCA decided to sell one of its camps.

“It’s a very, very painful thing,” said Kim J. Kiser, vice president of camping for the Chicago YMCA. “It has a huge impact on them (kids). That’s their camp home. They can come to all the other camps, but you sit down and talk to them and they are devastated. It’s like moving to a different school.”

The Hastings Lake YMCA Camp sits on 270 acres about 45 minutes northwest of Chicago, in a growing suburban area. The facility was sold for $10 million to the Lake County Forest Preserve, in a deal that requires closing the camp in July. The YMCA retained 11 acres and one building for a center.

Last year, the camp hosted 660 resident summer campers and 2,516 day campers. They will have the opportunity to attend other camps run by the YMCA, Kiser said.

School-based programs, such as summer school and day camps, are hurting all over.

In Missouri, funding for school programs this summer is expected to be cut by $100 million. “That’s a major hit for us,” said Maurice Overlander, associate superintendent of the Camdenton R-III school district.

Instead of enrolling 900 to 1,100 students in summer school and youth development programs, the district will limit enrollment to about 500, Overlander said. No courses are expected to be offered outside the four core academic areas, and enrichment class sizes will be increased from 15 students to 20.

“We’re seeing a lot of cuts to formal summer school programs,” said Fairchild, the summer education specialist at Johns Hopkins.
Greenville County, S.C., eliminated a five-week program to help prepare kindergartners for first grade; Miami-Dade County in Florida reduced its summer school and day camp enrollment from 135,000 students last year to 88,000 this year; New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed eliminating summer school and day camps for 29,500 youths.

Youths who miss out on such programs are not just losing an education. “Kids aren’t going to have access to breakfast and lunch,” Fairchild said. “If these programs are eliminated, what are these kids going to do?”

This summer may not be all bad for youth programs. The National 4-H Council anticipates that more parents will send their children to the relatively affordable 4-H camps. The Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts of the USA do not rely on state or federal funds, and report they’re faring well so far.

That good news may not last, warned National 4-H Youth Development Director Cathann A. Kress. Projected state budget cuts “may substantially change what we are able to do in 4-H youth development summer programs next year,” she said.

Contact: American Camping Association, (765) 342-8456,; Center for Summer Learning, (410) 261-1882,