A case study of government that works

Last Friday night, Whitehorse saw the 25th anniversary of a quietly but impressively successful Yukon institution: the Teen Parent Centre. 

Last Friday night, Whitehorse saw the 25th anniversary of a quietly but impressively successful Yukon institution: the Teen Parent Centre.

Tucked in the woods behind F.H. Collins, the centre is invisible to most Yukoners but makes a huge difference in the lives of young people.

The centre has served over 1,000 students and over 400 babies since it opened in 1990. Think about that for a minute. The Yukon only has about 35,000 people. You likely see people every day whose lives were changed for the better.

Kerri Scholz, one of the program’s alumni who was profiled in the Yukon News last week, is a case in point. Ms. Scholz was 17 when her daughter was born, and thought she would have to quit school. Instead, she found the Teen Parent Centre waiting for her.

She went on to get two certificates from Yukon College and has worked for the Yukon government for 15 years. She now has a job in the Executive Council Office, the high-profile department that coordinates the entire government’s activities.

This is a wonderful story. And supporters of the centre who attended last Friday’s celebration heard many more.

It’s also a wonderful story from an economics and public policy perspective. The key point, from a hard-hearted fiscal point of view, is that the Yukon has a highly progressive social support and taxation system. There are a wealth of statistics to show that people without high school degree have lower earnings and are unemployed more often. The income and employment statistics for single mothers without high-school diplomas are particularly grim.

So, in crass financial terms, a teen mother who quits high school is more likely to receive government assistance of various kinds and less likely to have a well-paying job that generates income tax revenues.

Employed people, on the other hand, make a sizeable contribution to the public purse every year through income taxes, employment insurance contributions, GST payments and so on.

Teen parents are, of course, young. An early change in trajectory can have a huge difference over a 50-year career. Ms. Sholz may not like to hear this, but given her age and current employment status, government financial models are likely expecting her to pay some whopping taxes over the remainder of her working years.

It would be fascinating to see an analysis of the cost of the Teen Parent Centre per student served, compared to their lifetime earnings adjusted for the difference between having a high-school diploma and not. My hypothesis is that the centre’s budget is a very good investment. At the centre’s 50th anniversary it will also be interesting to see what the difference is in high-school completion for the children of teen parents who were served by the centre versus those who were not.

So what has made the Teen Parent Centre so successful, while some other government programs make the newspapers for, how to put it, quite different reasons?

One thing is that the centre has a simple, clear and practical mission: “Our mission is to provide you with quality childcare, options for completing a high-school education, personal and family support and education in healthy living including nutrition, parenting, child development and life skills.”

Compared to a lot of programs that have a dozen broad-ranging objectives covering every possible aspect of some cluster of problems, the Centre’s mission is quite focused. This makes success more likely.

Second, the program attacks a problem that lies in one of the gaps between government departments. Teen parents attend school, the purview of the Department of Education. They are also a social issue, and also the responsibility of that department. There are also significant health-care issues associated with the babies and pre-and post-natal care for the mothers. It is all too easy for teen parents to disappear into this gap.

The centre’s founders creatively developed a solution that spanned this divide, and developed a program that works from the teen parent’s point of view. Note the “you” in the mission statement above. The program is designed to speak to the teen parent. It is “client-centric,” as consultants say. This means that F.H. Collins had to be flexible in delivering instruction that teen parents needed. And that the social services department had to be flexible about delivering its services in collaboration with a school.

Nils Clarke, who has been on the centre’s board for almost two decades, says that it is thanks to the “supportive partnership” between the centre, F.H. Collins, the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Social Services that the centre has become an “indispensable community asset for these young people.”

Third, the Teen Parent Centre has a strong and independent board. Non-government people like Renee Alford, a legendary Whitehorse volunteer and community builder, were absolutely critical to the foundation and success of the centre.

An independent board brings independent ideas and energy to a problem. They also provide strong accountability for the delivery of the program. I observe a pattern in the Yukon that some of the best-performing organizations, whether government or non-government, are those with strong and independent boards.

Finally, the centre has enjoyed consistent funding. I’m sure that centre management finds government budgeting as annoying as every other non-profit society. But at least the executive director does not have to spend half the time running around chasing grant applications and wondering if the sponsoring department will get around to signing the contribution agreement in time to meet payroll.

The Teen Parent Centre has taught plenty of valuable lessons to young people over the years. I think it also has a few things to teach middle-aged program managers at other organizations.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. You can follow him on Channel 9’s Yukonomist show or Twitter @hallidaykeith