Money in search of a mission

When Baltimore City voters approved a charter amendment last year that would set aside 3 percent of the city’s annual discretionary budget for youth programs, advocates of the measure hailed it as a long-overdue recognition that the city needed to do more to support its young people. Then a year passed and nothing much happened. Mayor Catherine Pugh dutifully put the money in her budget — and there it has sat unused ever since. Whatever changes voters may have hoped would result from the city’s new commitment to youth initiatives have failed to materialize.

That’s why we are somewhat encouraged by City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s proposal this week to allow the Associated Black Charities to take control of the $12 million fund and temporarily begin awarding it to small community organizations that work with young people. Mr. Young wants the charity to oversee that process while laying the groundwork for the formation of a permanent entity that would assume its responsibilities in coming years. Meanwhile he’ll make sure the process is as transparent as possible by having the city perform regular audits of the charity’s activities. The money obviously isn’t doing anyone any good where it is now, and the Associated Black Charities has the credibility to choose applicants whose programs have the best chance of benefiting the community. Mr. Young says he hopes the funds will find their way to the myriad smaller youth programs and philanthropies that often have a tough time competing for grants against their larger and better-funded rivals.

But in urging the city to turn over that responsibility to Associated Black Charities rather than having a city agency oversee the initiative directly, Mr.Young has also implicitly acknowledged the weaknesses of a plan that was never fully thought out in terms of where the greatest needs lie and what kinds of programs are most effective in helping city youngsters overcome the challenges they face.

Those questions are still up in the air despite the council president’s insistence that the grass-roots organizations he envisions receiving city support already know how to create and administer the kind of programs that will have the biggest impact on Baltimore’s young people. There’s not a lot of evidence to back up that claim.

Recall that most of the controversy sparked by the original proposal to set up a fund dedicated to city youth programs revolved around the issue of whether it was financially prudent to tie the hands of future mayors and council members by requiring them to allocate a fixed percentage of the budget to youth programs regardless of economic conditions or other unforeseen circumstances that might be equally pressing. But now that the charter amendment is in force, the problem has become not whether there is money to fund youth initiatives but rather which initiatives deserve the city’s support. Which are more effective: after-school athletics or chess clubs, martial arts lessons or band practice, music and art classes or laptop computers for every student, debate club or storytelling in the school library? Since there’s no universal consensus on these issues the youth fund has become, in effect, a pile of money in search of a mission.

We hope Associated Black Charities will weigh in on such questions as well as distribute the funds at its disposal fairly and equitably. One thing it should not do is assume that just because a small, grassroots program hasn’t received significant financial support in the past means it shouldn’t get city funds now — or that, vice versa, programs that have gotten support in the past should automatically continue receiving it. But those kinds of decisions are difficult to make in the absence of some sort of objective measure of what works and what doesn’t. Unearthing that kind of information is at least as important as supporting the grass-roots organizations that are actually working to bring about a better future for Baltimore’s young people. The city has promised to do what it can to improve and increase the number of opportunities available to the kids who need them most. Now it must follow through on that commitment by doing its homework and choosing only the best the city has to offer from a growing list of potentially beneficial programs and initiatives.

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