Over the past month, I have been involved in meetings in Madison County where, along with a group of juvenile-justice professionals, we have examined juvenile arrests and explored factors believed to influence our ability to respond to delinquency in our community. One thing stands out: The community lacks a continuum of resources to address the problems faced by poor and working-class children and families.
Too many of the children arrested have earlier histories in the child-welfare system. Too many have struggled in school. Moreover, in too many cases, youths involved in juvenile court end up in detention because we lack viable alternatives.
It is a common refrain, not just in Madison County, but across Kentucky and the United States.
We have known for some time that the prudent approach to delinquency is to prevent it and to avoid involvement in the courts, if at all possible. Although many youths are helped as a result of their involvement in juvenile justice, others are harmed by a system that is ostensibly intended to serve their interests.
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Moreover, community-based programs are more or equally effective in meeting these youths' needs and protecting the community compared to residential placements, and they are less expensive. Yet, a continuum of good community-based programs doesn't exist. The question is why, in the world's most affluent country, don't we have sufficient resources to meet the needs of children?
The problem is that the U.S. political economy is not child-friendly. The reality is that the rhetoric we hear from our political representatives does not match reality when it comes to allocating resources to meet children's needs.
Whether it is preschool programs, education, recreation, health care, child welfare or juvenile justice, the intellectual and financial resources devoted to children have never been adequate. Moreover, resources have been shrinking in recent years as our political representatives have chosen to spend our tax dollars on other things, and there is every reason to believe that this trend will continue in the foreseeable future.
As our political leaders contemplate reducing the size of the federal government and trimming government revenue, we need to carefully consider the costs of these policies on children and our communities. Of course, no one favors wasteful government spending or paying more than their fair share in taxes, but the reality is that so many of the institutions, programs and people that work hard to meet children's needs are funded by tax dollars.
Yes, it would be nice if the private sector would devote the resources necessary to meet children's needs, but the private sector has no incentive to do so because, other than as consumers, children have little economic value. Moreover, there was a time, in the 1800s and early 1900s, when the needs of poor children were primarily met by private, mostly religious-based, charitable organizations.
However, those organizations were incapable of responding to the large number of children and adults who needed help of some kind, and adequate funding was a constant concern. As a result, public-sector programs to meet the needs of children, families, the poor and the elderly were developed.
What is so tragic is that we have the intellectual and financial resources to more effectively meet the needs of children and families. What we lack, however, is the political will to make children's needs a priority. Because children represent no organized political constituency and have few lobbyists to influence political decision making, they fail to get the attention they deserve.
Nevertheless, there are signs that the needs of children are being recognized by increasing numbers of citizens. The recent rally in Lexington to prevent violence, the ongoing work in Madison County to explore strategies for better meeting the needs of children headed by the Madison County Delinquency Prevention Council and the Area Substance Abuse Policy Board, and the work of Kentucky Youth Advocates represent important efforts on behalf of children.
These groups and many others that work with and on behalf of children, such as our schools, need our support. Moreover, it is important that each of us challenges our political representatives to explain why children are not receiving what they need and to let them know that we expect better. After all, children really are the future.