- The Washington Times - Monday, March 7, 2005

PITTSBURGH — President Bush reversed roles yesterday, introducing his wife as the one who will lead the administration’s “Helping America’s Youth” initiative, designed to turn around the lives of children who are at risk of dropping out of school, joining gangs and engaging in sex before they are ready.

“I’ve listened to a million of his speeches, now he’s going to listen to one of mine,” first lady Laura Bush joked to a friendly crowd at the Community College of Allegheny County in northern Pittsburgh.

The Bush administration has proposed spending $870 million in the next three years on programs that would mentor the children of prisoners and promote reading, “responsible fatherhood” and “healthy marriages.” Much of that funding would be funneled through Mr. Bush’s “faith-based initiative,” which allows churches and religious organizations to use government money to offer social services to troubled families.

“Risky behaviors — including illegal-drug use, alcohol and tobacco use, violence and early sexual activities — are still among the top causes of disease and early death among young people,” Mrs. Bush said. “In addition, more children in America are growing up without fathers in their lives, and studies show that an overwhelming number of violent criminals have grown up without a father.”

In his first term, Mr. Bush sent his wife — a former school librarian — to tour the country on behalf of his “Striving Readers” campaign, during which she increased her public popularity, a tool the president used to good effect on the campaign trail.

Now the first lady’s role has been expanded to include battling a variety of social ills that tend to hold back the education and social advancement of millions of Americans.

Mrs. Bush said the administration wants to encourage mentors to serve as “a counterbalance to negative peer pressure, a safe harbor in a life of violence.”

“These young men [can] see an ideal of manhood that respects life and women and rejects violence,” she said. “The more children and youth hear these messages from adults, the less like they are to engage in risky behavior.”

Mrs. Bush’s foray into policy is markedly different from her predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was handed full control of pushing for massive changes in the U.S. health care system.

Mrs. Bush took care to articulate the programs’ limitations.

“Parental involvement is essential, but we all know that there is no direction book that comes with a baby,” Mrs. Bush said.

The leading cause of death among blacks ages 10 to 24 is murder, and it is the second-leading cause of death for Hispanics in that age group. Nearly a quarter of the 15 million U.S. cases of sexually transmitted diseases diagnosed each year is among teenagers, the White House said.

“Children want us in their lives, and they need us in their lives,” Mrs. Bush said. “Each of us has the power to make a difference in the life of a child.”

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