An Elegy for the Boy Scouts

An Elegy for the Boy Scouts
The news over the past few years has offered little to cheer about, but a recent story reporting an unprecedented 43 percent decline in membership in the Boy Scouts of America from 2019 to 2020—from 1.97 million Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts to 1.12 million—was especially dispiriting. To make matters worse, the Associated Press reports that BSA membership has fallen even further since 2020—to about 762,000. For purposes of comparison, combined enrollment in the BSA—Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts—peaked in 1972 at 6.5 million members and as recently as 1998 was 4.8 million. These numbers are shockingly grim. The once-robust BSA is on life support, with a seemingly fatal malady.

What happened to this venerable youth organization, brought to America in 1910? The BSA was once an iconic institution, producing as Eagle Scouts prominent Americans including President Gerald Ford, astronaut Neil Armstrong, filmmaker Steven Spielberg, animator William Hanna, businessman Ross Perot, television host Mike Rowe, and many others. More than 130 million Americans have participated in the BSA since its inception. The immediate cause of the precipitous decline in membership is a triple-whammy of the Covid-19 pandemic, highly-publicized litigation involving charges of decades-old sexual abuse against 60,000 alleged victims (leading to an $850 million settlement and BSA’s Chapter 11 filing in 2020), and the aftermath of the national organization’s decision in 2019 to admit girls (resulting in the withdrawal from the program of its largest participant, the Latter-day Saints (Mormon) Church, ending an association that began in 1913).

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