Who's Essential? Young People Are on Permanent Furlough

Henry M. Thomas III
January 1, 1996

While the nation looked on in disbelief, our federal government was recently put on furlough. Reflecting the futile engagement of politicians playing a childish game of chicken, the departments deemed essential stayed open. Ironically, many of us await the day when youth and their developmental needs receive priority attention and are considered essential enough to keep youth services constantly operating.

In light of proposed congressional cuts, however, it’s obvious that many young people will be abandoned and placed on permanent furlough. The ability of parents and communities to provide adequate support for youth continues to diminish.

Indeed, the message is clear: support for children and youth are dispensable, distinct budgetary and policy targets. Mean-spirited cuts in feeding programs, summer jobs, skills training and day care masquerade as reform measures, yet they counter the country’s sense of fairness and compassion. What’s more, they contradict citizen’s concerns over the growth of youth-related violent crime and delinquency.

A devastating one-third of African-American males in their 20s are in jail or moving through the criminal justice system. The Justice Department recently reported that juvenile crime has increased more than 100 percent over the past 12 years and is expected to increase another 100 percent over the next decade. Part of the federal government’s response has been to place 100,000 additional policemen on America’s streets. Someone once said, “Things don’t just happen, they happen just because …” In this case, they are happening just because those entrusted with our youths’ future have failed to act in the best interest of young people.

In advancing the development of youth, the challenge we face is creating an awareness and consciousness among the electorate. Enlightenment means understanding that the social and economic health of our communities is inextricably tied to the condition of youth. Unconverted stakeholders – from retail merchants and realtors, to members of service clubs and chambers of commerce, to policymakers and senior citizens – must be convinced that today’s children will determine their destiny. Equally important, elected public officials must be prevailed upon to support and ensure adequate infrastructures for youth development.

Unfortunately, most public officers are not going to support youth development at the level socioeconomic data dictates. They need to see a direct link between their political futures and the future of the youth they are entrusted to serve, for most politicians are motivated by issues and those citizens who affect votes.

Those of us laboring in the vineyard of youth development must admit this and act accordingly. This means that simply calling for increased opportunities and an expanded infrastructure for youth development is not enough. To ensure successful advocacy, appeals must be accompanied by a mobilization strategy that engages a cross-section of community players, including voter registration, education and participation efforts.

Such a strategy should also employ social marketing as a way to increase community awareness and involvement in the well-being of all youth.

Ultimately, there is amply research demonstrating that youth development programs do work, and they do so effectively and economically. This is particularly relevant when considering the costs of underdeveloped youth who become underdeveloped adults. Ignorance, crime, overcrowded prisons, unemployment, drug addiction, burgeoning welfare rolls, and the births of children who become wards of the state tragically prevail.

National economic stress is a byproduct of what an underdeveloped citizen imposes on community resources. The result is a further depletion of already scarce resources for youth development. We cannot allow the downward spiral to continue. Though young people are only 20 percent of our population, they are essentially 100 percent of our tomorrow.

Henry M. Thomas III is vice president for youth development at the National Urban League, N.Y.

Thomas III, Henry M.. "Who's Essential? Young People Are on Permanent Furlough."Youth Today, January/February 1996, p. 46.

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