For $5-million a year, the Conservative government has made an investment in young people that makes spectacular sense. It also undermines the logic of the government's U.S.-style prison expansion, which will cost Ottawa nearly $1-billion a year, and the provinces about the same amount.
Pathways to Education, which will receive $20-million over four years, is a remarkable program devised by a community health centre in Toronto's inner city. That program is a kind of neighbourhood watch for each and every high-schooler who might otherwise fall through the cracks. There is mandatory tutoring, for those whose marks fall below a certain threshold. There are mentors and support workers. There is financial aid - free transit tickets or lunches (whatever is needed to get a student to school) and $1,000 a year toward postsecondary tuition.
Its results are astonishing. It cut the dropout rate among 700 students from 56 per cent to 12 per cent, the Boston Consulting Group found in its assessment. It sent the rate of study in university or college to 80 per cent, from 20. (Most were the first in their family to go.) The assessment found a $600,000 lifetime benefit to society for each student in the program (and 93 per cent of eligible students were enrolled). The program is now in 11 locations in four provinces. It will be in 20 locations by 2016.
For $861-million, the size of the 36-per-cent annual corrections budget increase from 2009-10 to 2012-13, how many more investments like the one in Pathways could Canada make? How many more young people could be kept out of prisons by intervening in their lives at the right moment?
Ottawa's wrong-headedness on prisons involves more than just money. The government is squandering its energies figuring out all the ways to keep people in prison longer. It should be focusing on fostering innovation and producing a more educated population, thereby keeping people out of prison.
The beauty of Pathways is that it came from a local community that understood how to foster self-sufficiency in the neediest young people. Ottawa should be beating the bushes to find more such programs. Why not a national fund of $100-million a year for the best social innovations aimed at reaching the most at-risk young people? (Take it from the prisons-expansion budget.)
Spending money to help troubled youth be productive makes so much more economic and human sense than building more prisons for them.