Private charity won't save these young people

The Reagan administration regularly responds to criticism of cutbacks in social programs by suggesting that the private sector can pick up where government has suddenly left off. As the head of Aspira of New Jersey (one of five associated agencies in the country), I can attest to both the potential and the limitations of such private funding. Here in New Jersey we have sought and gained an unusual share of support from the private sector. Unfortunately, that does not soften the crushing impact when federal funding collapses.

For 12 years our agency has been working to help motivate Hispanic youths - in neighborhoods where dropout rates average about 50 percent - to complete their high school education and go on to post-secondary schooling. While we offer other programs and services in several municipalities and counties, our leading high school counseling program was based in the poverty-impacted cities of Paterson and Passaic. We have been responsible for placing over 3,000 youths in technical schools, two- and four-year colleges, even medical schools.

Aspira's achievement is not simply helping disadvantaged youths acquire a post-secondary degree that will pay off in better job opportunities; it has deliberately tried to teach these teen-agers that with an adequate education they will not only be able to compete successfuly in the job market but will also be community leaders, inspiring others to follow in their footsteps. Programs like ours offer a lasting way out of the vicious circle of poverty - lack of skills and education, lack of work, and, finally, lack of hope.

In Paterson and Passaic, our single largest source of funds was a federally funded program known as Talent Search. Launched by Congress in 1965, during the Nixon administration, Talent Search provides a helping hand for youths from educationally and economically deprived families. Aspira was one of the first independent community agencies in the country to qualify for Talent Search support. Recently, the average cost to the taxpayer for counseling each student was under $100; for each student going on to further education, the cost was under $400.

The Talent Search program in Paterson and Passaic, after years of successful work, was unexpectedly defunded in June 1980. Placements plummeted from a high of 450 per year to under 250 in the 1980-1981 school year. For several hundred young people, that meant the door of opportunity had been slammed shut.

Consider the immediate future for, say, 200 such students. One hundred enter the American mainstream condemned to, at best, a life of continuing financial insecurity because they lack even a basic high school education. The other hundred, the high school graduates, can read about the job opportunites in the classified pages. But they can't get them. They are unqualified to be word processors, legal secretaries, programmers, and lab technicians. They can settle for less, or, on their own against very heavy odds, they can attempt to continue their education. True, a handful will find a way to live up to their potential, to lead fully productive lives, and truly to participate in the American dream. Tragically, many more will not.

Fortunately for Aspira, New Jersey foundations and businesses were early to recognize the soundness of investing in human potential. Over the past three years, private funding for the agency has more than doubled. Last year, we received $321,000 in private dollars, over half our total budget.

This concern and generosity saved us from closing our programs entirely in most of the communities we serve. But it could not compensate for the catastrophic loss of federal money in Paterson and Passaic. Doubling all private charitable aid to social welfare in the next few years is so vastly unrealistic that not the rosiest spokesman for the present administration has projected it. Yet, even if America responded selflessly to the increased need brought about by the budget cuts, that could still, judging from our experience, not come anywhere near making up for the withdrawal of federal funds.

Amazingly, the most recent budget proposed for the Education Dept. by President Reagan targets the elimination of the entire Talent Search program while reducing its sister programs, Upward Bound, Educational Opportunity Centers, and Special Services for the Disadvantaged.

Without strong support for these programs, how can the millions of disadvantaged youths in America break out of the disheartening cycle of poverty they live in? Instead of a few hundred young people shut out of the mainstream of American life, there will be thousands. This administration prides itself on its conservative American values even while cutting the programs which foster self-reliance and independence. A single year's income-tax payments from the educated, responsible community leaders and role models Talent Search and its sister programs create would reimburse society's investment. Since within a few years the public's investment is more than repaid, it is unreasonable to expect private philanthropy, with its dollars already so thinly stretched, to step in.

Private philanthropy has a vital and growing role to play in American society , but it can never replace the government's necessary commitment to the full development of the nation's human resources.

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