Friday, August 26, 2011

Making "Kids Count" About More Than Kids

Last week, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released their annual Kids Count Databook. Kids Count is an important tool for many stakeholders that deal with children and youth, from advocates like the staff and members of DCAYA to policy actors like the City Council right down to the families and individuals the data book reports on.

The data book is a national scan of a series of indicators that are accepted means of tracking how children are fairing. Each year the databook has a theme, and this year's was how family economic well-being affects child welfare. The data is presented in such a way that viewers of the databook can see how different states and territories are doing from year to year. An example is shown below:

Kids Count provides valuable information on a range of issues. However, something sorely missing from the databook is a wealth of indicators telling us how YOUTH and YOUNG ADULTS are doing and how their well being affects family well being. Kids Count is CHOCK FULL of indicators about early childhood and school aged children, but when it comes to data about teenagers and especially individuals in their early twenties..fuhgeddaboutit.

It may seem counter intuitive to include young adults in a report titled Kids Count, but as A growing body of research (from some reallllllly smart people) points out, the transition from childhood (for most intents and purposes up to age 18) to adulthood is not on the same schedule it used to be. Children and young adults are living with their parents for longer, getting married later (or not at all) and its taking most of them a while to find well paid, sustainable jobs and careers. These trends are true across socio-economic groups and demographics. As one of the reallllly smart people we mentioned earlier, Frank Furstenberg Jr. has pointed out, America's welfare, education, workforce development and safety net system DOES NOT invest heavily in things like education, health care, and job benefits for young adults. As a result, we rely on the investments that individual families make in their own children during the young adult years. But as adulthood is delayed, so is financial independence. Older teenagers and those in their early 20's (and for some even mid and late twenties) are increasingly reliant on their parents or guardians to provide housing, food and financial backing... obviously this will have an effect on the overall economic security of families in the U.S.

Karen Pittman, from the Forum for Youth Investment's Ready By 21 Initiative noticed the same gap in the Kids Count Data and in response wrote ,"We need to do a better job of highlighting the statistics and stories of older youth, and ensuring that our policy recommendations include strategies that address their needs for job training, educational stipends, extended health and social benefits, employer incentives and paid service opportunities."

DCAYA couldn't agree more Karen!

As this body of research continues to grow, we can only hope that the complicated transition from adolescence to adulthood and the public investment that is needed at this stage of development is transferred into the psyches of policy makers and the general public, to the point where we see indicators of youth and young adult well-being on data books like Kids Count. Until then groups like DCAYA and the Forum for Youth Investment will no doubt continue to spread the word about issues specific to youth and young adult population.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

SYEP: Why DC Needs a Plan to Succeed

DCAYA provided testimony last week to the Committee on Housing and Workforce Development at a special DOES Roundtable about the performance of the District's OneCity Summer Youth Employment Program. In addition to sending our resident policy gurus to testify and live tweet the hearing, we also convened a panel of summer workforce providers that could speak to some of the issues they saw firsthand with SYEP this year.

The general feel of the hearing was one of encouragement. For the first time in years, SYEP appeared to come in under budget and had far fewer participants and taxpayers calling elected officials to complain. However, as advocates and concerned residents of the District we need to be leery of celebrating too early, setting low expectations and labeling a program whose outcomes are not well defined as a success just because it came in under budget.

Make no mistake, the Department of Employment Services has certainly taken steps in the right direction since 2008 and 2009, but the District's youth, their parents, and even the community writ large should expect excellence out of its youth programs, not mediocrity. Due in large part to SYEP's history as a program that places a high burden on taxpayers, leaves youth and parents angered and disgruntled while providing few tangible results and benefits, our expectations as a city are currently abysmally low. But this isn't the way it has to be. The District can do right by its youth and provide quality; outcomes based programming that does not have to shock the world by coming in under budget.

DCAYA's testimony outlines various areas of improvement that will continue to raise the bar for SYEP's performance in 2012,but to actually ensure that DOES is making headway toward positive outcomes for our youth the District needs to answer one simple question. What is the ultimate goal of SYEP?

Is the point of SYEP to simply expose young people to the workplace? Is it skill building? Is SYEP supposed to be job exploration that allows youth to “try before you buy” in different employment sectors or is the government simply running a program that connects youth with a paycheck? It may be all of these things, or none, or even a combination of these things and other goals we did not mention, but any way you swing it the District needs to outline definitive objectives, develop targets and outcomes that illustrate whether those objectives are being met and actively message all of these to our elected officials, the advocacy community and most importantly, the participating youth. Only then can SYEP be accurately judged as a success or failure.

In the coming weeks, DCAYA will be partnering with DOES to run feedback sessions for providers that participated in the 2011 program so that program staff at DOES and in the administration can better understand what about SYEP is working well and what isn't. We salute DOES’ efforts to illicit honest feedback from the provider community and will do everything in our power to help the agency obtain this feedback; however, having hosted sessions like these in years past, it will come as no surprise when responses about clarity of mission and vision start rolling in. It is our hope that thru this process, providers concerns are taken seriously and critical improvements like the formulation of a strategic plan are undertaken in an efficient manner.

SYEP, like most youth serving programs is a program that is absolutely teeming with potential. By providing young people with a strong foundation for lifelong success in the labor market, we help our youth, but also the long term economic standing of the District. The District needs to take advantage of this potential and use the momentum DOES has created over the past year to further improve SYEP and thus the economic vitality of the city.

Links to all the testimony DCAYA provides at Council hearings is available on our website.

If you or staff members from your organization are interested in participating in one of the follow up groups with DOES please contact DCAYA’s Policy Analyst for Youth Workforce Development Anne Abbott (anne