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U.S. Programs for Children Seen as Tangled Web

Over hundreds of years of lawmaking, good intentions, and bureaucracy, the federal government has spawned a considerable tangle of programs aimed at improving life in some way for the nation's children and youth. You can find education-related programs, for example, in the departments of agriculture, education, housing and urban development, health and human services, and justice; in the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Corporation for National and Community Service, just to name a few.

To get a read on the extent of that reach, a group of researchers, in a new paper, offer an inventory of all the child-related programs in seven of those agencies. They came up with a grand total of 363 such programs, many of which either overlap or use a confusing array of requirements.

"If you look at it against the services being offered you find a lot of problems with definitions, who's eligible, and under what circumstances," said Christopher T. Cross, whose research and consulting firm, Cross & Joftus, took on the inventory project.

Twenty-three programs, for instance, focus on very young children, but the populations they target are all over the map. They variously target children between birth and age 6, 0 to 7, 0 to 8, or 0 to 9, for instance. While 96 programs aim to help poor children and families, the criteria for how poor a family has to be to qualify varies from program to program. And, in Congress, a variety of different committees oversee all those programs, often with no awareness that a similar program may be operating in an agency outside of their committee's jurisdiction.

"It's hard for communities to come together to coordinate all these programs in a coherent way," said Mr. Cross, who was once a part of the federal bureaucracy himself. He served as an assistant secretary for educational research and improvement in the U.S. Department of Education under President George H.W. Bush.

Mr. Cross' group is not the first to highlight the need for better coordination of child-related services at the federal level. A report out of Teachers College today, in fact, makes a similar call and Mr. Cross says several Obama administration officials are discussing the matter, too.

"It's just getting it to happen," said Mr. Cross. The seven-agency inventory his firm created, however, may be one place to start. Check it out for free here.

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