Youth Group Fights for Budget Dollars
By Dianne Anderson
When crafting and reviewing an annual half-billion dollar city budget, usually the kids are the last to know.
Earlier this week, Long Beach teen and youth got in on the front end of the process.
They had an opportunity to talk about what many adults are still trying to learn, how to balance a budget and navigate difficult conversations around public access to funding.
Omar Cardenas, the lead organizer with the nonprofit Khmer Girls in Action, said the Young People’s Budget Hearing for the city of Long Beach was about bringing their voice to the table because they are among the most impacted groups in the city.
Children from birth to age 18 comprise one-quarter of the city’s population, but never get a say on how the money is spent. The organization is concerned the city spends $170 per youth for positive youth development, but $10,500 per youth arrest.
Over the years, the city has increased some youth services, but not enough to offset budget cuts of the past decade. Through their campaign, the group is calling to prioritize children and youth in city budget decisions, especially the most vulnerable.
At the event, the youth shared their stories, and learned how to take action on the budget process.
“We are clear in our analysis that the city has a responsibility to provide a certain level of support to ensure that happens,” he said. “The city’s  budget proposal at $500 million for the General Fund is not just a drop in the bucket.”
About 65 percent funding will go to public safety, he said, but less than five percent of the General Fund goes toward positive youth development programs and services.
However, the city is making some strides. He said the Mayor proposed setting $200,000 aside in seed money for a Long Beach Children and Youth Fund. The program is working with the council and the Mayor to make investing in young people a priority for the future.
“Which is a great start. We are excited, but we believe the city of Long Beach can do better,” he said.
For the transitional 19-24 age, support is also urgent. Many are not connected to adult support, or college, they’re unemployed or without job skills.
“On top of that, the one-third of the city’s 127,000 [youth] population is actually living in lower than the poverty level.”
The program is the first of its kind locally, but is seeing success in other cities, including Oakland, Richmond, Baltimore, Sacramento and San Francisco, where, youth are brought into the city budget process.
He is encouraged that some Long Beach council members agree with the importance of giving youth a place at the table. He thanked co-sponsor Councilman Rex Richardson of District 9 for holding the event at his field office on Monday.
Youth working closely with the city budget has an added benefit, he said. The dollars can be concentrated in one transparent location, easy to track, evaluate and data-driven to measure the outcomes and success.
Currently, the group is inviting local youth for an orientation set tentatively for mid-September. Each year, the draw a group of new teens to participate in campaigns and plan within a framework for social justice. Some of the youth have worked on research in partnership with Cal State University, Long Beach.
“I would invite and encourage young people to come out to participate and see if they want to stay engaged,” he said.
Anchored with Building Healthy Communities, Khmer Girls in Action has implemented other campaigns, including the city school district’s budget, and how the district was investing in school climate and relationships to improve outcomes.
He said the money is always the most important because it usually goes hand in hand with more access to services.
“It’s going to be a fight. We’re happy to get the $200,000 seed money, but our young people deserve more,” he said.
For more information, see the mid-September event www.investinyouthlb.org