A record drop in membership is plaguing the country's two most iconic youth organizations – the Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts of the USA.
Both organizations blame the loss of members, including teens and elementary school children, on the COVID-19 pandemic, and what they say is partly due to social trends that have been shrinking their ranks for decades.
Both organizations insist they'll survive to carry out their time-honored missions of teaching skills and teamwork, providing outdoor adventure, and encouraging community service.
Membership for the BSA's flagship Cub Scouts and Scouts BSA programs dropped from 1.97 million in 2019 to 1.12 million in 2020 – a whopping 43% plunge. Court records show membership has fallen further since then, to about 762,000.
The Girl Scouts say their youth membership fell by nearly 30%, from about 1.4 million in 2019-2020 to just over 1 million this year.
The Girl Scouts reported a youth membership of about 2.8 million in 2003. The BSA had more than 4 million boys participating in the 1970s.
Both groups, like several other U.S. youth organizations, have experienced declining membership for many years partly due to scandal, conflicts, and decisions to publicly embrace liberal ideas on sexuality. Just a few years ago, the Boy Scouts even took the "Boy" out of their organization's title to embrace a genderless approach.
Christian parents, concerned over the moral downward spiral of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), have been shunning the organization over the past few decades in favor of faith-based alternatives like Trail Life USA.
Other reasons for the exodus from Boy and Girl Scouts include competition from sports leagues, a perception by some families that they are old-fashioned, and busy family schedules. The pandemic brought a particular challenge of having to hold Cub Scout, Boy Scout, and Girl Scout meetings virtually.
Jay Yaros, a high school history teacher, who earned the Eagle Scout award, Scouting's highest rank, confessed the 111-year-old program for boys hasn't kept up with the times.
"There are a lot of interesting things for kids to do these days," said Yaros, the father of a Cub Scout. "And scouting doesn't seem to be keeping up."
The Boy Scouts' problems were compounded by their decision to seek bankruptcy protection in February 2020 to cope with thousands of lawsuits filed by men who allege they were molested as youngsters by scout leaders. The case is proceeding slowly in federal bankruptcy court as lawyers negotiate creation of a trust fund for victims that will likely entail hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions from the BSA and its 252 local councils.
The pandemic, the membership drop, and rising costs of liability insurance have strained BSA finances. A disclosure statement in the bankruptcy case says its gross revenues dropped from $394 million in 2019 to $187 million last year.
Meanwhile, the Girl Scouts have had bureaucratic problems to deal with. There is ongoing litigation pitting the national headquarters against two of the 111 local councils — based in Fairbanks, Alaska, and Nashville, Tennessee — which refuse to implement a nationwide technology platform.
Despite the varied challenges, BSA's president and CEO, Roger Mosby and other Boy Scout officials, as well as the Girl Scouts' leadership, say they're optimistic. They say their summer camps are full, special events are sold out, and they're expecting many thousands of families – some new to scouting, some who left during the pandemic – to sign up now that activities are occurring in-person rather than virtually.
"We knew some girls would take a pause," said Girl Scouts spokeswoman Kelly Parisi. "But as the pandemic goes in the rear-view mirror, we've seen a substantial rebound... We feel really good going into the fall recruitment."
Other adult Boy Scout leaders note the renewed interest in Scouting as parents look for ways to keep their children active with in-person learning, and outdoor experiences, while at the same time, keeping them away from the internet.
Bryan Koch of Madison, Wisconsin, has been an adult leader for more than a decade as two sons went through Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. "I'm a firm believer in what scouting can be," Koch said. "It helps us develop more well-rounded and aware young men and women. That's sorely needed in our country right now."
Yet he says membership in his Boy Scout troop dropped by 30% in recent years as boys and parents turned to other activities.
After making their mark in the two scouting programs by attaining the highest rank in the respective programs, some Eagle Scouts and the equivalent Girl Scout Gold Award recipients have even gone on to leave their mark in the fields of business, entertainment, law, and even the frontier of outer space.
Some famous Eagle Scouts include Neil Armstrong, astronaut and the first man on the moon; Stephen G. Breyer, associate justice, United States Supreme Court; Mike Rowe, host of "Dirty Jobs" on the Discovery Channel; Steven Spielberg, Academy Award-winning film director; John Tesh, recording artist and performer; and Dr. Robert M. Gates, former U.S. Secretary of Defense and the BSA's 35th National President.
Some famous Girl Scouts who achieved The Gold Award include Melissa Bachman, American hunter, producer, and host of hunting television programs; Betsy Boze, an American academic and higher education administrator; and Tammy Duckworth, retired Army National Guard lieutenant colonel serving as the junior United States Senator from Illinois since 2017. Other famous women who also worn the Girl Scout uniform include Queen Elizabeth, Laura Bush, Actress Lynda Carter, Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.