Despite ethics scandals, a “nuclear” fight and general partisan strife permeating Capitol Hill, there are still some issues that can bring lawmakers from both sides of the aisle together.
Funding the National Guard Youth Challenge program, an educational program for at-risk youth, is one of them.
Members from both chambers are now supporting a bill to expand funding for the program, and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) hopes to bring it to the D.C. area.
Youth Challenge seeks to rehabilitate young people who have dropped out of high school through education, job training and mentoring in a “quasi-military” environment. Nearly 56,000 students have graduated from the program, and Youth Challenge officials say most of them have obtained a GED, gone on to college or found full-time employment.
“There are a lot of us who are supportive — Republican and Democrat, House and Senate,” Landrieu said. “One of our goals is to expand programs that are working and cut those that aren’t working. This is clearly the former.”
Defense committees in both the House and Senate are considering bills to increase the federal government’s share of the program’s funding. It is currently funded with both state and federal money, and the bills would increase the percentage of the federal match.
In a press release introducing the funding bill, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who worked with the National Guard Bureau to create the program in 1991, said limited budgets necessitate more help from the federal government.
“Budget shortfalls in West Virginia and across the country have put the Youth Challenge program in jeopardy,” Byrd said. “That’s why I have authored legislation to increase federal funding for the program so that it will continue to mentor at-risk young people who want to change the direction of their lives.”
Landrieu is also working with military officials to bring the program to Washington, D.C. The Senator said she has spoken with a D.C. general about bringing Youth Challenge to the District, and if city officials are open to the idea, she would be prepared to earmark funds for it if the city contributed, just as states do.
“I think they are entitled to a program,” she said of Washington, D.C.
Youth Challenge is a 17-month program for 16- to 18-year-old high school dropouts. New recruits must be drug-free, unemployed or underemployed and law-abiding citizens. While Youth Challenge recruits are not members of the military, nearly 20 percent join the military after graduating from Youth Challenge.
Twenty-four states and Puerto Rico have programs, and 16 are on a waiting list to start more programs. Only about one-third of the applicants are successful because of lack of funding.
Louisiana lawmakers are particularly adamant about the program, as Louisiana is the only state to boast three Youth Challenge academies. The Louisiana program has been recognized by Youth Challenge as the best program in the United States.
Michael DiResto, a spokesman for Rep. Richard Baker (R-La.), called Youth Challenge “a No. 1 priority of Congressman Baker for almost a decade — both getting it into his district and championing it ever since.”
“It’s been a collaborative effort, but if you want to give a name to it, I guess you could say we were trying to do ‘compassionate conservatism’ before it was cool,” Baker said of Louisiana’s Youth Challenge in a statement.
Conversations with a local judge and Chamber of Commerce officials in Louisiana piqued Baker’s interest in Youth Challenge. The judge said the same young people kept reappearing in his courtroom, and the Chamber of Commerce expressed concern about the employability of troubled young people.
DiResto recalled Baker’s efforts to bring a financial education program to Youth Challenge. While appealing to executives at JP MorganChase, Baker showed a video of a young woman talking about how Youth Challenge had changed her life.
“And the punch line was, ‘And now I’m a manager at JP MorganChase,’” DiResto said.
Landrieu cited her firsthand experiences visiting the academies and speaking at graduations as helping to influence her view of the program.
“We have three outstanding programs, and the bottom line is I’ve seen firsthand the life-changing nature of this program, which reaches out to children who have given up, and in many cases, parents who have given up after a noble effort,” she said.
Landrieu said the program is an important last chance for troubled teens.
“For many of them, this is the last train out of Dodge, and they either have to step on the train to success or go down a path of hopelessness and not have a bright future,” Landrieu said.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) first learned of the program in an oversight hearing for his Defense subcommittee and said he was “delighted with the testimony” regarding Youth Challenge.
Later, he would grow more involved when his grandson participated in Youth Challenge.
“I’ve received an overwhelming response from Alaskans. I have many friends whose sons and daughters have been through it,” Stevens said.
Stevens said he’s tried to “maintain funding at a robust level.”
“Sen. [Daniel] Inouye [D-Hawaii] and I have watched over this program and intend to continue watching over it,” Stevens said, adding that there has to be balance between Youth Challenge’s needs and funding the National Guard.
“It’s just one of a series of programs, but it works because there’s so much discipline involved,” he said.