Focus Area 1: The Field of Youth Work
3. Benefits of Youth Work

Thinking about who benefits from youth work, the natural first thought is young people, of course!

Because youth work has often been seen as something that is primarily for the benefit of troubled youth, underprivileged youth, or at-risk youth for example, this course focuses on it in a more useful way, from a more expansive principle of youth development:

Youth work is intended to meet the needs and develop competencies for all youth, not just those engaged in problem behaviors or perceived to be at risk for doing so. Because all youth must grow through a specific developmental process to become successful adults, all youth are at risk for problems.

This principle ties in perfectly with the perspective that all youth work is an intervention of some sort. Coming from this positive point of view about youth work and the young people that are served, it’s easy to see the broader, more far-reaching benefit of youth work overall.

While youth work has a direct and often measurable benefit for the young people being served, there are also direct and indirect benefits to our communities and society as a whole. Let’s look into this more closely.


At the start of this module, you learned that there was a time when children were seen as inherently bad. Thankfully, our understanding has evolved. Most of the theory and practice of youth work today is grounded in the perspective that youth are inherently good and that they will reach their best potential when they are sufficiently supported, cared for, nurtured, and encouraged at every stage of their development.

Still, some less positive terms meant to broadly identify populations of young people being served by youth workers persist. Often, such descriptions are meant to help potential funders understand the need for services. Unfortunately, they can also carry a negative connotation:

  • At-risk youth
  • Opportunity youth
  • Under-served youth
  • Troubled youth
  • Juvenile delinquents
  • Underprivileged youth
  • Vulnerable youth
  • Youth who are struggling
  • Low income youth
  • Under-represented youth

And this could be a contributing factor to society’s ongoing misunderstanding about the work that you do and the critical importance of the services you provide.

In truth, youth programs currently serve young people across every spectrum of need, class, socio-economic status, race/culture, gender, age – you get the picture – all youth.

There is an abundance of early childhood programs and those programs are specific to young people under the age of 8. To be clear, this course will touch on the middle childhood years to help you understand the developmental stages that precede adolescence. But it is the adolescent age group - teenagers – that are the primary focus throughout the course.

Different programs will have their own specific goals and outcomes that they aim to achieve with the young people they serve. But in general, programs for teens will provide supports within these five basic competency areas identified by sociologist and recognized leader in youth development, Karen J. Pittman (1991)1. Her work identifies these as essential for success in adulthood:

1. Health and Physical Competence -Good current health status plus evidence of knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors that will ensure future health. 

2. Personal and Social Competence -Skills for understanding self and having self-discipline; working with others, communicating, cooperating, negotiating, and building relationships; coping, adapting, and being responsible; and finally, making good judgments, evaluating, making decisions, and problem-solving. 

3. Cognitive and Creative Competence -Useful knowledge and abilities to appreciate and participate in areas of creative expression for thinking, seeing, feeling, tasting, and hearing. 

4. Vocational Competence -Understanding and awareness of life planning and career choices, leisure and work options, and steps to act on those choices.

5. Citizenship Competence -Understanding of personal values, moral and ethical decision-making, and participation in public efforts of citizenship that contribute to the community and the nation.

You can see that youth programs provide a great number of benefits to young people. The greatest benefit to young people is YOU – the youth worker. Research shows that the caring relationship a youth worker provides is associated with a number of youth well-being outcomes2:

  • Children and adolescents who have a formal or informal mentor-like relationship with someone outside their home are less likely to have externalizing behavior problems (such as bullying) and internalizing problems (such as depression).
  • They are also more likely to complete tasks they start, remain calm in the face of challenges, show interest in learning new things, volunteer in the community, engage in physical activities, participate in out-of-school time activities, and be engaged in school.
  • Additionally, those who have a caring adult outside the home are more likely to talk with their parents about things that really matter.
Link to learn more: Child Trends Research Brief

Research confirms that it is the quality of those caring, adult relationships in the lives of young people that have the greatest positive effect on their development. When you, as a youth worker, are motivated by a loving agenda, work with positive purpose, and genuinely care about young people, you make a real difference in their positive development. 


There isn’t a lot of buzz in the general public about all the great things youth workers achieve. You don’t see many stories in the media except around certain holiday times or events. So, it can feel a little like maybe people aren’t really paying attention, or worse, just don’t care.

Most youth workers don’t get into this field for the possibility of recognition or fame. Most are content to quietly do the work and just know that the difference they make and the appreciation of the young people they’ve helped, is more than enough.

But sometimes it’s easy to have doubts about the outcomes of your work. Many youth workers have shared the sense that they are always planting seeds that they don’t often get to see grow and blossom. This is true in any profession, but it can be especially true in the field of youth work.

Anecdotal stories of success are nice and make people feel good. But they are rarely enough to provide evidence that the field is making a difference.

What the general public has not yet come to know is just how much of a difference you make.

But research is underway and data is being collected in states all across the country to put some quantifiable facts together. While it seems almost everyone is willing to say that investing in young people is important, few are willing to actually advocate for funding for youth programs and to fully support the need for youth workers in their communities. By being a vocal advocate for youth, by inviting your legislators and community members in to see your programs firsthand, by sharing the results and outcomes of your programs publicly, you can play a vital role in ensuring your community knows how they benefit by your work.

As one example, in YIPA’s home state of Minnesota, youth intervention programs receive funding through the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, Office of Justice Programs.

The grant recipient agencies report their results to the Office of Justice Programs and that data provides evidence that investment in youth intervention programs is effective.

Comparing pre- and post-survey responses3 by youth in programs, the Office of Justice Programs found significant improvement across a variety of behavioral areas is being made. Results include:

  • Increased satisfaction with school, as well as improved attendance and behavior
  • Increased satisfaction with school grades/achievement
  • A decrease in the frequency of missing assignments or homework
  • Increased frequency of participation in after-school activities
  • A decrease in experiencing threats, fear or physical harm at school or school-related activities
  • Improved decision-making skills
  • Improved problem-solving skills
  • Improved goal-setting skills
  • Greater ability to admit mistakes or wrongdoing
  • Increased ability to control anger
  • Less propensity to get revenge when wronged or harmed

Additionally, 9 out of 10 young people did not have the police bring them home since they started participation in a youth program nor did they receive a ticket, citation, or a new charge.

The benefits to communities when their young people have access to supportive youth programs are many. Healthier young people, better equipped for success, having little or no involvement with the juvenile justice system, civically engaged and developing prosocial behaviors contribute to more vibrant and safer communities.

Find out how your agency monitors and tracks program outcomes and be active in helping to spread the word of your program’s positive impacts. 


As a youth worker, you probably have not given much thought to the value of your work, in monetary terms. But this is how decisions about funding your programs are often framed so it is helpful to have at least a basic understanding.

When young people do not receive the support and guidance they need to develop into healthy, productive, contributing members of our society, we all pay a price. The more you know about both the economic costs and the social costs, the better you will be able to articulate the tangible and intangible value of the service you provide to society. 

Economic cost:

Your work saves taxpayer money. This is because programs often serve youth who are at risk of becoming consumers of public services and support them in becoming contributors to the common good in our communities. While a youth program often impacts a young person’s immediate situation, the benefits continue throughout their life.

Social cost:

A Social Return on Investment (SROI) study was completed by Amherst H. Wilder Foundation and the University of Minnesota in 2007. Their findings show nearly a $5 return on every $1 invested in youth. This benchmark study demonstrates in economic terms that the outcomes of your work save money.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation conducted a study in 20114 that found placing youth in the juvenile justice system is much costlier than community-based youth programs and does not improve public safety. The Foundation’s findings powerfully document the direct financial benefits of quality community-based youth intervention programs.

Link to learn more: The Annie E. Casey Foundation


Many people who enter the field of youth work say they have a natural passion to help young people, they just feel called to do this work, they were once helped by a youth worker themselves, they want to make a real difference in the world. The reasons are unique to each individual but the common theme that weaves them all together is caring.

You have an innate ability to build a trusting relationship with young people and that is an uncommon skill, more of a fine art than something easily learned. You somehow developed a passion to do this work that many other people would never have the patience for. You have the ability to bring your whole self to the task, to show up authentically, even fearlessly for young people. You see the relationship as a partnership and are willing to hold space for young people that values their voice, centers their needs, and allows them to walk their own path. That sets you apart from a whole lot of other adults in a young person’s life.

The work you do demands that you put your heart into it. It requires you to come from a place of genuine care and concern to see young people succeed. It means you have to know how to connect. And you have to listen more than most other people know how.

Even though the job doesn’t come with a big salary or a fancy title, you have chosen to follow your heart. It’s what all of us are encouraged to do in life but few of us have the actual courage and commitment to put into practice. Given that we only have one life to live, we’re urged to do something we love so that life will be meaningful, not measured just by monetary gains.

All this is to say that clearly, not everyone can do the work you do.

Being able to do work that you love, to see firsthand how your work has positively improved another person’s life, to know that what you do for a young person today can have beneficial results for years, maybe even generations ahead, well that is a rare and fulfilling career!

There are not a whole lot of people who genuinely love the work they do. If you’ve committed yourself to working with young people, you are one of those few who do. The benefit to you is beyond measure.

And we cannot thank you enough for your service!

Reference Sources

1 Pittman, Karen J., "Promoting Youth Development: Strengthening the Role of Youth Service and Community Organizations" (1991). School K-12. Paper 42.

2 Murphey, David, Bandy, Tawana, Schmitz, Hannah, Moore, Kristin “Caring Adults: Important for Positive Child Well-being” (2013). Research Brief published by Child Trends December 2013, Publication #2103-54

3 Swayze, D., & Buskovick, D. (2012). Minnesota Youth Intervention Programs: A Statistical Analysis of Participant Pre- and Post-Program Surveys Minnesota Department of Public Safety Office of Justice Programs.

4 The Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2011). No Place for Kids: Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration. Baltimore, MD: Mendel, Richard A. Retrieved from

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