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A New Force to Make Washington Notice Kids

Resource type: News

Youth Today |

America’s Promise hosts an $8 million start-up to focus on budget and tax polices. Can it help the youth field ‘speak to Republicans’? Bunch of liberals. That’s how official Washing-ton sees many of the country’s major advocates for disadvantaged and at-risk youth. With Republicans controlling the White House and Congress, that perception is not good for those who are trying to get more federal money for youth services. They’re not even well-organized or well-funded liberals, like civil rights groups, or labor unions in their heyday. Youth policy advocates tend to fight only the battles that affect their niches, and to count their pennies as they do it. There’s a woman sitting at the Virginia headquarters of America’s Promise The Alliance for Youth (AP) who’s just been handed 800 million pennies to change that. Christine Ferguson, a Republican, heads the newly created Children’s Investment Project (CIP), whose mission is to make children and families a central part of the nation’s budget and tax policies and to do it in a bipartisan way. It’s a bold experiment for Atlantic Philanthropies, which is contributing $6 million over three years; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, putting up $2 million over the same span; and AP, a federally funded organization (with $4.5 million in congressional earmarks this year) that is now hosting a project that will take sides on federal policy. America’s Promise, historically, has not played an active role in policy issues, says AP President Marguerite Sallee. We have not been as proactive on policy issues as I think we will be now. If it’s done right, it’s really quite important, says Karen Pittman, executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment, whose work includes building alliances on youth policies. But Michael Petit, president of the youth advocacy group Every Child Matters, is skeptical that the Children’s Investment Project can take strong positions on issues and remain bipartisan. I’ll believe it when I see it, he says. Pigeon-holed The CIP comes along at a time when Washington is as politically divided as anyone can remember, and when wars, tax cuts and the growth of sacred entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare threaten to quash federal spending on youth in the near future. (See Times are Tough Get Used to It, December 2004.) To find out what the trend portends for the youth services field, in 2003 several foundations hired James Weill, a former Children’s Defense Fund counsel who is now president of the Washington-based Food Research and ActionCenter. Armed with nearly $500,000 in grants from Atlantic and the Packard, Annie E. Casey and Rockefeller Family foundations, Weill and his team (including Peter Hart Research and the communications firm GMMB) spent about a year talking with advocates, foundation staffers, people on Capitol Hill and others in politics. They found that there was a significant and growing pressure on children’s programs in the federal budget and there was, at least theoretically, a very real possibility that children’s spending could be squeezed out, says Kathy Reich, the Packard program officer on the project. What’s more, the child advocacy community was not currently organized to meet the challenges or take advantage of the opportunities. The report, which Packard declined to release, confirmed what youth advocates and youth-serving organizations have said about themselves for years: There wasn’t enough cohesion, and there wasn’t enough oomph from the grassroots around tax and budget issues, Weill says. Instead, the groups pursue myriad legislative priorities with varying degrees of intensity, and form coalitions that go hot and cold. Everybody’s got their special interests, says Irv Katz, president of the National Collaboration for Youth, whose 50-plus members include most of the country’s largest youth-serving organizations (and AP). If you’re involved in juvenile justice or child welfare, you’re going to devote your small budget for advocacy on those things. Big-ticket advocacy requires big-ticket funding and nobody has it, Pittman notes. And unlike some of Washington’s policy wonk shops, their primary focus isn’t the budget. There is no children’s organization that looks at tax and budget issues in a systematic way as the primary lens through which they do their work, Reich says. Another impediment to strong advocacy is that many youth services organizations are skittish about ruffling feathers in Washington by taking sides on public policy issues. Fear is absolutely an element of it, Katz says. At the same time, Weill says his study confirmed that much of the child advocacy community was pigeonholed, rightly or wrongly, as partisan. While youth advocacy groups generally insist that they’re bipartisan, and while some Republican lawmakers support pieces of legislation championed by those groups, the policy positions of the youth field align far more with those of Democrats than with Republicans. That has been especially so during the Bush administration, as the country’s prominent youth advocates have railed against the GOP’s budget and tax policies as hurting children and families, especially the poor. The traditional children’s agenda, with all of the positive effects it’s had, is often seen by Republicans on the Hill as too Democratic and too progressive, Weill says. Ferguson says the field needs a better understanding of how to speak to Republicans. A New Way To fix the problem, Packard and Atlantic could have given their $8 million to existing advocacy groups. But during his research, Weill says, there was really a sense that this needed to be tackled in a new way. Reich says the funders wanted to house the project in an organization that could provide infrastructure and other types of support. Weill and his team had discussed their study with Sallee when she was staff director for the Senate Subcommittee on Children and Families, before she joined AP last fall. Sallee says she continued talking with Weill and the Packard Foundation about the idea, and eventually about AP being the home of the project. AP offers numerous advantages for the project. It is nationally known but is not seen as partisan. On the contrary, it has already got an established reputation that would open some doors, says Charles Roussel, director of Disadvantaged Children and Youth programs at Atlantic. That includes doors not only to Republicans and Democrats, but to the businesses and community-based organizations around the country with which AP has worked. Plus, Sallee has long worked on children’s issues, including as commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Human Services, as co-founder of a child care provider (Corporate Family Solutions) and in Washington. So has Ferguson, having served as director of Rhode Island’s Department of Human Services, commissioner of Massachusetts’ Department of Public Health and deputy chief of staff to the late Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.). Sallee also worked for a Republican senator, as special assistant to Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. Ferguson beams energy and optimism as she sits in her office at AP. She lays out three fundamental roles for CIP: research and analysis of public policy affecting children and families; advocacy on some of those polices; and communications and marketing. The funders want CIP to refocus policy discussions, Reich says, so if a debate comes up on Social Security [for example], children aren’t thrown in as an afterthought to the debate. They are central to that debate. It will try to convince policy-makers and the public that children and families are at the heart of issues such as health care and taxes. To do this, the project plans to coordinate with national and state advocacy groups. Among other things, Ferguson envisions CIP awarding grants to state coalitions to promote children and family causes with lawmakers and the public. Reich also hopes CIP will recruit unlikely allies, such as leaders from business, senior citizens’ organizations and faith-based leaders, finding common ground on issues as they affect children. We are looking at trying to create an entity that has the ability to bring both parties together, Roussel says. He admits, it’s going to be difficult to do anything bipartisan in today’s politically polarized environment. The hope is to build a center of information and analysis that both Democrats and Republicans trust and can even turn to for help in reaching policy agreements. Sound Pollyannaish? It would take quite a balancing act for an organization to take strong policy positions in Washington without seeming to be aligned with one party or the other. Conversely, trying too hard to look bipartisan could make the project timid. Ferguson insists the latter won’t happen. Being bipartisan in Washington today is similar to walking on a very narrow wall, she says. We will be looking to widen it, but on some issues, we will move closer to one side or the other. Petit of Every Child Matters is skeptical that an organization can advocate assertively on behalf of youth without winding up on one side of the political divide. The youth field’s partisan leaning, he says, results from the fact that there’s a much more receptive ear among Democrats to the policies that most child advocates favor. There’s also a risk that CIP’s advocacy could draw political heat for AP and tarnish its bipartisan image. Sallee says CIP will not have to get AP’s approval on policy positions. It will be its own entity. It will have its own board, she says, although it will not be a separate 501(c)(3) nonprofit. In the hopefully rare instances where a CIP position doesn’t align with AP’s, we will be setting up mechanisms to make it clear that they don’t speak with one voice on policy. Many details about CIP need to be worked out, from such nuts-and-bolts matters as its name (CIP is a working title) and budget to how it will gather and disseminate information. For instance, Ferguson says it might take out advertisements. So far, she has five staffers: Ian Lang, deputy executive director for strategy; Colleen Sonosky, deputy executive director for policy; Mary Joyce, budget director and project manager; Patrice Ford, alliance director; and Colin Johnson, administrative coordinator. The project will evolve over time, Reich says. Evolving with it will be the funders’ sense of how to evaluate the impact of their investment. That’s a tough one, Reich says. Roussel offers one way of measuring impact: On a particular issue, was CIP able to drive a position that generated more support across the political spectrum than would otherwise have been the case? Says Reich, I think we’re going to be patient. Contact: CIP at (703) 535-3885. Patrick Boyle can be reached at From Youth Today, The Newspaper on Youth Work. Reproduced with permission of the publisher.