Proposed Budget Guts Critical Support for Well-being and Success of our Youth

The proposed federal budget’s cut to AmeriCorps will harm youth-serving programs and must be treated as an emergency.

Photo: Elliot Haney © 2015 City Year

The proposed federal budget’s elimination of funding to AmeriCorps and one of its signature programs, City Year, has stirred some discussion but not nearly enough. The potential gutting of these programs must be treated with utmost urgency, and with so much at stake, there should be a public outcry. Unfortunately, the numbing effect of so many policy changes makes it hard for many of us to know what to even focus on. To emphasize the gravity of the situation, I need to address what has been missing in the conversation about City Year: this deep cut would topple critical psychological supports for large numbers of young people.

As most of us can attest, growing up and learning to navigate the world comes with many difficult challenges. Fortunately, most young people have adults to offer guidance, structure, and encouragement along the way. But for many children, the adults in their lives are facing their own challenges, such as physical or mental illness and poverty, that limit their time together. Without adequate supervision and guidance, young people face heightened loneliness and become prone to risky behavior. On the other hand, research has shown that, having a supportive adult and positive peers who can model behavior can lessen depressive symptoms and help curb aggression and violence.

Teachers cannot be asked to be a personal coach, social worker, guidance counselor, and educator to each student.

Unfortunately, the traditional education system has no clear solution for the roughly 10 million children in need of greater mental health support and the shortage of mental health professionals that makes them even harder to reach. These issues can wreak havoc on families, schools, and communities. Additionally, when students feel little bond to school and have few supportive relationships with teachers and administrators in the building, student well-being and academic performance are negatively impacted and suspension and dropout rates soar. While some teachers are successful at juggling both social-emotional development and academic learning in the classroom, students’ needs are great and teachers cannot be asked to be a personal coach, social worker, guidance counselor, and educator to each student.

My colleagues at The PEAR Institute and I have partnered with City Year for years to connect research to practice and support social-emotional development. Throughout this partnership, I’ve seen first-hand the program’s ability to provide indispensable mentorship opportunities for young people. In fact, we conducted the research in schools to test the role of a young practitioner working side-by-side with teachers to mentor, tutor, and advise. Now, City Year’s corps members serve as dedicated, energetic, and compassionate near-peer mentors who are integral parts of schools all over the country. It is hard to describe the magic I’ve seen happen between students and these young adults. City Year members develop a deep understanding of their students and support learning even as students face adverse conditions. Oftentimes, corps members come from the same or similar communities as the students with whom they work, providing a deeply meaningful level of connection through a shared perspective. Embedded in classrooms, they become vital tutors, role models, counselors, and cheerleaders. Through a team of about 10 corps members and managers per school, City Year reduces teacher stress and burnout and increases positive school climate. All of this is achieved at relatively little expense to the public given their success in fundraising and the low cost of corps member stipends.

If City Year’s budget is greatly depleted, schools in the 28 cities it serves will revisit many of the extreme challenges they’ve seen reduced over many years.

After decades of being a non-partisan issue, it is hard to understand why anyone could consider destroying what is truly an evidence-based, low-cost intervention. City Year has shown decades of progress and its impact is evidenced by research and by testimonies from corps members, students, families, educators, and policymakers. We know that if City Year’s budget is greatly depleted, schools in the 28 cities it serves will revisit many of the extreme challenges they’ve seen reduced over many years. Most seriously, young people will bear the weight of the loss both academically and psychologically. I think the public understands what this deep cut could do to academic outcomes, but we need to consider what it means for young people to lose such an important positive connection to an adult who is focused on their success in learning and thriving. Ultimately, the proposed budget elimination is a wake up call and the threat of gutting these programs must be treated as an emergency. We must do everything we can to help AmeriCorps and City Year to fulfill their missions of combining idealism with purpose to support young people.

UPDATE, May 8, 2017:

In the days since this article was published, a government shut-down was avoided and a budget was approved for the rest of FY2017. As part of this budget, AmeriCorps will continue operating at its current spending level until the end of September. While this offers AmeriCorps and City Year some reprieve by keeping them funded into the early fall, it does not ensure their safety for the next fiscal year or into the more distant future. The basic issue remains that there are strong forces that want to block funding for America’s service programs while the psychological and academic needs of our youth remain as urgent as ever. We must use this important window of time well so that decision-makers recognize and support, in a bi-partisan manner, the impact that City Year, Teach for America, Playworks, and similar AmeriCorps programs have on the safety, well-being, and learning of young people. A good first step is visit these organizations’ websites for guidance on what you can do immediately. We only have a few months to join the debate and influence the decision.