Councils in England have been accused of raiding youth work funds to bail out other services.
Meanwhile there is a shortage of more than 4,000 youth and community workers.
A picture of a profession in crisis has been uncovered in a national survey by the Community and Youth Workers' Union. "Money from government has been lost by local authorities in the general pot and young people have suffered," said its general secretary Doug Nicholls.
Union statistics show that councils plan to commit pound;345 million to youth and community services in 20034 is well short of the pound;513m the Government says they should be spending. This year, 135 authorities will spend less than the Government recommends, leaving just 14 meeting the target.
Mr Nicholls said the number of council youth workers has declined continuously since 1980. Yet, in the past 15 years, this shrunken workforce had doubled the funding it raises from external sources, boosting funding for youth services by pound;100m a year.
Staff shortages force many local authorities to operate with 50-per-cent sickness rates because of stress and the violence youth workers face just doing their jobs, the survey shows. Rising numbers are quitting for better pay and conditions elsewhere, the union says.
The union says 3,996 extra full-time qualified workers are needed to meet the Government's target of one for every 400 young people. It wants to see pound;100m of central government annual funding ring-fenced so that 3,500 more can be employed in 2004-5. Only 19 local authorities meet the ratio, while 25 have one worker for every 900 young people. Only two authorities spend more than pound;200 per youth, while 21 spend less than pound;50.
Mr Nicholls is also pressing the Department for Education and Skills to force councils to spend its target. "At the moment, we have government objectives that employers, by default, are not attending to," he said.
The lowest spender in the survey is Hackney, which spends 79 per cent less than government expectations. Next is Hounslow (74 per cent below), then Slough and Harrow (69 per cent). Figures show that 88 councils will spend less than 75 per cent of the target.
A spokeswoman for Hackney said: "Funding for the youth service totalled pound;5.2m. Most of this was passed to the Learning Trust, which deals with education services in Hackney and will be spending money on youth-related activities. Hackney spent almost pound;1.1m on aspects of the youth service," she said. But comparisons with other councils needed to take account of money spent by the trust. Hackney also gave grants to to youth charities, she said.
But Mr Nicholls insists this is missing the point. He said: "The Government is very specific about how allocated money should be spent."
Most generous authorities were the Isles of Scilly and City of London which spent over twice the target amount. Nottinghamshire spends 45 per cent above target and Reading 27 per cent more.