Spring 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 1 // To The Point // 1TP1

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

Youth at Risk: Extension's Hard Decisions


Richard J. Sauer
President and CEO
National 4-H Council
Washington, D.C.

After 21 years as a faculty member and administrator at three major land-grant universities, occupying positions from assistant professor to interim president, I became president of National 4-H Council in January 1989. National 4-H Council is a not-for-profit corporation whose mission is to enhance the development and education of youth in partnership with the Cooperative Extension System by acquiring and administering resources applied primarily through 4-H youth programs. My previous land-grant experience, coupled with my current responsibility, prompts me to write about the youth crisis in America and Extension's opportunity to lead a successful response to it.

Symptoms Versus Root Causes

This nation is confronted with a youth crisis that crosses cultural, social, and economic boundaries. Some would describe all youth as "at risk." That view notwithstanding, many of the most vulnerable aren't making the passage through early adolescence successfully and aren't developing into healthy, productive, and responsible adults. Much attention has been focused on such issues as adolescent suicide, illiteracy, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, juvenile crime, school dropouts, and youth unemployment. As all too often happens, we focus unduly on symptoms, which these are, rather than on the real root causes that put our youth "at risk." And we also have a tendency to simplify the problem, looking for a quick fix. I was called by a newspaper reporter in August 1989 when the results of the Gallup Poll on drug abuse among youth were released. The reporter seemed to want me to say: "Drug abuse is the number one problem among young people today." I countered that drug abuse is just a symptom of the real primary causes: poverty, lack of family support, negative peer pressure, and sometimes neighborhood, color of skin, ethnic background, or language barriers. The reporter wasn't interested in exploring the enormous complexity of our youth crisis. My real fear is that his response reflects the prevalent attitude and lack of understanding among the general citizenry and even among public officials in leadership positions.

On a positive note, the youth crisis is finally being recognized as a national issue of paramount importance. It's high on the agenda of government agencies at all levels and of foundations, corporations, and elected officials.

The importance and enormity of the challenge is being recognized. However, existing education, health, and child care approaches so far haven't come close to meeting the challenge. How about the Cooperative Extension System?

National Initiative on Youth at Risk

While "Youth at Risk" was not one of the original eight National Initiatives of the Cooperative Extension System, after some criticism and prodding, the issue was identified in May 1988 as the ninth National Initiative. During the year that followed, a Youth at Risk (YAR) National Initiative Task Force developed for the Cooperative Extension System an agenda for action addressing the critical needs of youth. Their excellent report, released in May 1989, outlines the first steps for making this agenda a reality. The YAR Task Force report concludes with a challenge to the Cooperative Extension System: "The real question is whether enough human and financial resources can be mobilized to move Extension nationwide into communities to do the job."

The challenge is enormous in scope, encompassing more than just the resource question above. Addressing that challenge is critical to the future of the United States as both an economically competitive and a socially cohesive society in the different world of the next century. The Cooperative Extension System can lead a successful national response to this challenge, but not by conducting business as usual and treating 4-H as a second-class citizen among its programs. The very future of Extension as a meaningful educational institution is interwoven with the effectiveness of its response to the challenge of youth at risk.

What an opportunity for Extension with its track record of success in youth education! Its 4-H program provides the foundation on which to build a successful response to the challenge. For most of this century, the 4-H program has been successful developing healthy, productive, knowledgeable, and involved citizens. It's our best example of preventive education. It has a presence in every county of the United States, as well as a strong national image.

4-H Mission Remains Constant

Both social issues and the needs of youth have changed dramatically over the years, but the 4-H mission remains constant. The 4-H program is value-oriented and practical. It seeks to prepare each young person for productive citizenship by building self-esteem and by developing initiative and an appreciation for high standards in both work and service.

Extension has, therefore, success to build on. The program works. The challenge is to extend it to fulfill the vision of helping every American become a healthy adult and a responsible citizen.

Too often I've heard Extension professionals and administrators respond to the youth crisis and to other challenges by lamenting how thinly the existing resources - human and financial - are already spread. It's impossible, they say, to take on any additional responsibilities without infusions of new money. Public dollars - federal, state, or county - are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain. New public funding in any significant amount is likely only when Extension administration demonstrates its ability to make tough choices, curtailing or even detaching from some traditional programs to provide for others that are more necessary to our economy and society.

Reallocating Extension Resources

While Extension has undergone a transition to issues-based program planning, significant dollar reallocations haven't followed. Resources are still based predominantly in production-oriented departments of Colleges of Agriculture. To be responsive to the challenges of the 1990s, no state Extension Service should be devoting more than 10% to 20% of its staff resources to the problems of production agriculture. The remainder should be directed to problems of the nonfarm sector, the continuing education needs of adults, and the continuing education needs of our youth. In making the transition through this redirection, more flexibility must be injected into the system.

Extension doesn't have a strong record in securing non-tax resources to support new program initiatives. Thus, Extension has missed many program opportunities due to lack of funding. It has instead remained unduly dependent on the public trough.

Many states have created a 4-H foundation; however, it's a mistake on the part of professional staff to believe the foundation's role is to raise the money independent of programming. On the contrary, a strong partnership must exist between program and development if program initiatives are to be successfully funded and carried out.

New Extension Clientele in Crisis

The farm crisis of the mid-1980s pales by comparison with the current youth crisis. Yet, I don't see the Extension System mounting a response in any way comparable to the system's reaction to that challenge. If the system, or at least an individual state, decides to respond, however, it will face a challenge that didn't exist with the farm crisis. The farmers in trouble were among our traditional clientele. Extension knew where they lived and how to reach them. In contrast, the youth most at risk aren't, for the most part, among our traditional youth clientele, which has been predominantly white and middle-class, residing in rural areas or small towns. For example, only 15% of those entering the work force between now and the year 2000 will be U.S.-born white males, compared with today's work force that's 47% U.S.-born white males. By the year 2000, about one-third of the young people entering the work force will be Black or Hispanic, the groups now at the bottom of our educational and economic ladder and residing largely in urban areas.

Over the past year, I've visited several state 4-H programs. I've observed attempts to increase the racial and cultural diversity of their 4-H membership. However, these efforts all too often appear as an add-on, a tokenism, pursued only to meet minimum legal requirements. Perhaps it's because neither the adult volunteer pool nor the professional Extension staff itself reflects the racial and ethnic make-up of the youth-at-risk clientele. We in Extension must start in our own house if we're to successfully serve a diverse population.

Beyond Tokenism

Tokenism can be seen as well in some urban 4-H programs. I fear too many exist only because they can be used as examples with state legislators and other public officials when a state Extension Service tries to show it's reaching youth throughout the state. Such programs prompt increased appropriations from state legislative bodies dominated by representatives of urban areas. Ironically, urban youth are often most in need of what 4-H has to offer. To date, for most of them, those needs still go unmet.

As Extension develops new initiatives to reach more diverse youth clientele, it shouldn't feel bound to conduct every program under the 4-H banner. In some cases, the 4-H label and traditional image may be a major roadblock in reaching some youth most at risk, as well as in recruiting the volunteers to carry out the programs.

The youth of this nation are a vast resource, the most valuable one we have. They become an even more valuable resource as the percentage of their representation in the total population drops. However, we're not developing a significant portion of the potential they embody. More than one-fourth of the once-projected high school class of 1990 will fail to graduate. Instead, they'll join an underclass with little hope of fully participating in the privileges and responsibilities of American citizenship. We stand in danger of losing one-quarter of an entire generation to sustained dependency.

An Unprecedented Challenge for Extension

Extension: This is a challenge that exceeds any you have faced before now. Take it on, drawing on the resources of the land-grant universities and creating new coalitions. You'll have assumed a responsibility that will revitalize your institution to the core and ensure your future well into the 21st century.

But, unless you're serious about doing the job, serious about resource reallocation and affirmative action, then leave it alone. While I have some doubts about your being able to respond to the challenge, I'm confident that somewhere in this great country the leadership exists to respond to the challenge, just as Americans responded to the crises of the past. Prove me wrong. Show me that this leadership exists within the Cooperative Extension System. I'll eat the crow and buy the drinks. And I'll continue to find the new resources to help back the commitment you make to our youth.