What Youth Services Proposal Could Win MacArthur’s $100M Prize?

As Youth Services Insider mentioned last week, the MacArthur Foundation has announced 100&Change, a commitment of $100 million to fund one single proposal “to help solve a critical problem of our time.”

Does the youth services industry stand a chance? Certainly. There is no shortage of challenges in the country today related to our ability to protect, educate, develop, rehabilitate or treat young people.

So let’s speculate wildly on the prospects of possible youth-related ventures that could capture the hearts of 100&Change judges! Here are some half-baked thoughts from Youth Services Insider on the youth field’s prospects as a whole for taking this prize.

First, we could see the winning proposal being one that MacArthur is convinced can eradicate a problem (or come close to it) on a local level, as opposed to any sort of grand scale. The promotional materials for 100&Change all reference “solving a problem,” but the details suggest a more pragmatic expectation:

100&Change is a MacArthur Foundation competition for a $100 million grant to fund a single proposal that will make measurable progress toward solving a significant problem.

In its recently ended juvenile justice initiative, Models for Change, the foundation invested in reform efforts in several states in the hope that their work could be a template for the rest. That model seems plausible here: a proposal to make a huge dent, on a state level, with a problem that is national in scope.

Second, it seems likely that any macro-level challenge, such as child poverty or health care, is unrealistic. One hundred million is a lot of moolah, but not enough to address those types of problems. Plus, if the child poverty rate declines or the coverage of children goes up, there won’t be any way to determine how much of that was attributable to the 100&Change proposal. And what fun would that be?

It is also instructive that MacArthur uses “measurable progress” as a watchword in the basic description, and in the application calls for “the results of any external evaluations that your proposed solution has undergone.” So we could see the winning proposal targeting a specific, underlying cause of a bigger problem.

Third, at least one of MacArthur’s panelists for 100&Change will advocate strongly for youth-related proposals. Marian Wright Edelman, the founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, is one of the 30 judges MacArthur will use to first evaluate proposals, then move certain ones deeper into the competition.

If you follow the premise that Marian Wright Edelman will hold sway on the youth-related proposals, you can probably use CDF’s priority areas as a guide for what she’s most receptive to. From the organization’s website:

  • End child poverty
  • Ensure every child access to health care
  • Provide quality early childhood experiences
  • Ensure every child can read at grade level
  • Protect children from abuse and neglect
  • Stop the criminalization of children

Using our “local proposal to a national problem” theory, and setting aside macro-problems like poverty and health care, that leaves early childhood, literacy, child protection and juvenile justice reform.

There are several reasons that YSI believes that juvenile justice will not be the area that the winning proposal comes from. First and foremost, MacArthur just spent $100 million trying to reform juvenile justice. Yes, the winner of 100&Change will be decided by judges, but you have to think the foundation will have some input here.

Second, another foundation – Annie E. Casey Foundation – is already operating a large-scale initiative to reduce the use of detention and confinement in the system. Most advocates, including Edelman, would put the overuse of such facilities at or near the top of the social problem pile when it comes to juvenile justice.

The other aspect of juvenile justice that Edelman, CDF and many other advocates are passionate about is racial disparity in the system. It is certainly a social problem, but it’s not one that a single proposal is going to solve. There are plenty of concepts that could tangentially and positively impact racial disparity; but YSI has a hard time seeing that as a measurable end.

So if juvenile justice is out, that leaves early childhood, literacy at grade level, and child protection. Chuck literacy, because that war starts way before kids are in grades, so early childhood would be the way to attack literacy as a social problem anyway.

So the two CDF priorities that might make the most sense in the context of this competition are early childhood and child welfare. We can make arguments for, and against, both fields having a chance here.

The case for early childhood begins with the fact that pretty much everyone in the country is on some level aware of its importance. Further, the sitting president has called for the nation to move toward universal pre-kindergarten. Further still, Head Start has maintained and even seen boosts in funding in recent years as many other funds for disadvantaged youth have been diminished in partisan budget battles.

So a local proposal to universalize early childhood development, using a set array of tactics, would be rational. We’ll address this in, say, Colorado, and we’ll build a blueprint for the nation to do it. Makes sense.

Two things go against an early childhood proposal. First, even with $100 million, teasing out the impact of the 100&Change venture from other early childhood programs might be difficult. Not impossible, but difficult.

Second, investments in early childhood are more like treasury bonds than short stock plays. You spend on early childhood and reap the rewards in five years when kids can read at grade level, in ten years when they are resilient teens, etc. There are short-term results to measure, but the real wins take a while to capture. And during that period, any number of factors can muck it up: a massive recession, a war, a drug epidemic, whatever.

So what about child welfare? It can’t be anything as drastic as a proposal to end child fatalities. But there are  more specific social problems to pick from within child welfare that are more specific.

Treating substance abuse and mental illness as an underlying cause of abuse or neglect are interesting. Both of those sectors have within them evidence-based approaches to success.

Here’s another possible child welfare-related proposal: ending family homelessness, which is of course a known pathway into child welfare system involvement. In a recent interview with YSI, Administration for Children, Youth and Families Commissioner Rafael Lopez said moving the needle on housing and homelessness is among the priority issues for the Obama administration’s final year.

The argument against all of those child welfare issues is the same: cost. Quality drug treatment, mental health services and affordable housing are all high price tag items. A $100 million proposal in any of those realms could really only make sense in either a low-population state or perhaps a high-population county.

We’ll know soon enough what youth-related organizations throw a hat in the ring.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

John Kelly
About John Kelly 1115 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.