Tipping Toward Youth Development

Karen Pittman
July 1, 1999

A National Campaign to Reduce Youth Violence? Having once headed the now defunct President’s Crime Prevention Council, I was chagrined to see President Clinton propose another campaign in the midst of the youth violence debate.

I’m not sure we need another national campaign. Reinstating the Prevention Council, which was charged with coordinating crime prevention programs across the departments and given the potential authority to coordinate prevention funding, seems a sounder if less glamorous road. If we do create a national campaign, it should not be “to reduce youth violence.”

Ten years ago I joked about the fact that the mayor of a Midwestern city had responded to increases in gang activity in neighboring cities by setting up a task force on youth idleness. Today, I’m ready to sign up. Admittedly it is a negative image, one that blames the victims. The ideal would be a National Campaign to Promote Youth Development or Increase Youth Preparation and Participation. But at some point we have to resign ourselves to the irresistible draw of problems and get strategic.

If we have to name a problem to stamp out, youth idleness isn’t a bad one. It has tough ring. It’s concrete. John Q Public can define it. Idleness: doing nothing productive. Adults and young people may disagree over the definition of “productive,” but not as much as adults might think. More than teen pregnancy or youth violence, youth idleness stems not so much from inappropriate individual behaviors as to inadequate family, school and community supports.

Done well, a walk along the road to youth idleness affords policymakers and the public a guided tour of slashed extracurricular budgets, uninspired after-school programming, inadequate transportation, too-small family child-care subsidies, non-existent youth-development subsidies, shoe-string budget youth programs, uncoordinated service and intern opportunities, underfunded youth employment and training programs, and unstaffed or unopen libraries and recreation centers. Equally important, it provides a glimpse into youth isolation — detachment from school, few friends or friends equally alienated, limited family interaction, poor family communication.

A youth idleness prevention campaign could, ironically, generate positive spin on youth. Young people will tell you they don’t want to be idle. The problem: lack of appropriate, affordable, accessible and sometimes accountable things to do (i.e., things that could really make a difference for which young people could get credit). The other side of the problem: plenty of inappropriate, affordable and accessible things to do. And situations — like gangs, violence, drugs and sex — that are often difficult to avoid without appropriate structures, supports and services.

The campaign could move the public from thinking about recreation and after-school activities to thinking about training, jobs and careers. A soon-to-be-released study edited by Douglas Besharov and published by the Child Welfare League of America offers surprising statistics about the numbers and plights of young adults who are “disconnected” from school, the labor force or marriage for significant portions of critical transitional years. This data strongly suggest that most young people are at least marginally connected to school and/or the labor force until ages 16 or 17, but that disconnection doubles between 17 and 18. By age 19, almost 17 percent of both males and females have been disconnected for at least one 26-week period.

Disconnection appears to be relatively benign in small quantities, but it is toxic in multiple doses. Those disconnected during three or more of the transitional young adult years experienced significant hardship: at ages 25 to 28, their median family income was well below that of “connected” youth (only about $18,000 for men, and $15,000 for women). The young men were six times more likely to have spent time locked up. Among the women, 56 percent lived in poverty. This kind of data puts a hard edge on youth idleness that suggests we take it seriously.

If we are going to launch a new campaign, let’s launch one that young people can really get behind, rather than recoiling from the spectacle of more adult idle talk.

Karen Pittman is senior vice president at the International Youth Foundation and chairman of Youth Today’s board of directors.

Pittman, Karen. "Tipping Toward Youth Development." Youth Today, July/August 1999, p. 55.

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