Editorial: Making connections worth the risk

May. 14, 2013 @ 09:44 PM

We can understand a certain amount of reluctance.

Durham County leaders have tried before to battle the chronic problem of disconnected youth, only to have those efforts sputter and die.

So, when County Commissioners on Monday voiced doubts about Alliance Behavior Healthcare’s youth initiative, it wasn’t much of a surprise.

“I’m just a little baffled as to the clarity of what it is we’re doing,” Commissioner Brenda Howerton told administrators, according to an article by The Herald-Sun’s Ray Gronberg. “We want it to be approved tonight, and I’m just not clear on how it’s all working.”

The new plan would see the county investing about $60,000 as it partners with the city and Durham Public Schools to hire a youth services coordinator and implement a new youth services steering committee.

They would also hire consultants to help build a foundation for an effort to organize services for youth who have gone off track between education and career.

But the plan’s not specific enough and, as local activist DeWarren Langley noted, seems to echo past attempts that have gone nowhere, such as the youth coordinating board that was established in the 1990s but disbanded early in the 2000s.

“We’ve been here before,” he said.

We need to know where we’re going and how we’re going to get there, Langley added.

He’s right.

But Ann Oshel, community relations director for Alliance, also had a point when she explained that uncertainty is part of the process.

The key, ultimately, is finding a plan, getting community buy-in and sticking with it. For whatever reason, we’ve run hot and cold when it comes to dedicating ourselves to reconnecting with these young people.

That’s the real tragedy here. In tight budget times, as local governments scrounge for every extra penny they can save, it’s understandable that something has to give. But making connections for struggling youth always should be one of our highest priorities, because we all pay a price in the end for their challenges.

A report last year by Durham’s MDC – Manpower Development Corp. – drew a pretty stark outline about the problem. Forty percent of Durham’s youth and young adults were either behind their age group in high school or fell far short of work readiness. That lag in achievement equates to growing barriers to good employment opportunities in a job market that’s still not quite chugging along on all cylinders.

One study cited by MDC suggested that each disconnected youth costs taxpayers $14,000 a year, much of that at the local level.

“In other words, the disconnected youth in Durham cost local, state and federal taxpayers between $63 million and $84 million per year,” the report stated. “For every 500 youths that Durham reconnects, taxpayers will save $7 million annually.”

If we can get at least five young people back on track with the plan proposed by Alliance, the county could easily see a return on the small investment that they’re being asked to make.

Commissioners haven’t said no yet. They want to talk about it some more, and we don’t blame them.

If the county decides next month to make this commitment, and we hope they do, it must be with assurances that organizers will provide ample tracking to show real positive impacts of the program.