July 11, 2011

The True Cost of Cutting Summer Youth Programming

July 11, 2011

On the way to work recently, I heard a story on the radio about Washington, DC’s budget struggles and the deep cuts in summer programs for children in the District.  As the reporter noted, non-profits are calling it the perfect storm-- a $17 million reduction in funds for summer jobs programs, summer school to help kids not fall further behind, and other summer enrichment activities.

I was sad enough hearing the human costs – the children who would be left unsupervised, the teens who might have to repeat a grade (and risk dropping out) because they couldn’t make up missing credits, the motivated kids who couldn’t work and learn and earn.  Even if we look only at the costs of summer learning loss for children at risk of school failure, the costs are high.  Researchers suggest that two-thirds of the infamous 9th-grade achievement gap between lower- and higher-income children can be explained by differences in summer learning opportunities.    And we know that childhood poverty can do long-term damage to children’s lives and development and make it more likely that they will live in poverty as adults.

The long chain of both short- and long-term effects that these budget decisions have for individual children, their families, and their communities is hard enough to contemplate -- especially when we know what we can do to prevent these costs.   But I cringed and then became angry when the reporter wrapped up the story by interviewing the local police, who said they’d have to keep cops out of training activities over the summer because officers would be needed on the streets to address the spikes in violence likely when kids have nothing constructive to do.

While policymakers clearly face agonizing decisions with the current untenable budget shortfalls, the combined human, economic, and societal costs of these decisions—now and down the road—must be reckoned with.  And it is not only DC –similar stories have cropped up about Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia.  When those serving and protecting us on the frontline can so clearly see these connections, we must figure out another way --besides denying children the chance to grow, learn, and stay out of trouble --to deal with our budget crisis.  If we don’t, our short-term problems will become long term problems. What’s “saved” then?

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