Taking Stock: What the 2009 Children's Budget Says about Us (and Why it Matters)
The overall child poverty rate in our nation has hovered just under 20 percent for decades. The current recession is driving up the poverty rate, along with increased rates of homelessness, hunger, lack of reliable health care and other hardships. How do we know? Because the national Census Bureau provides an official, reliable, steady source of data on such figures, with many organizations using Census and other data to analyze what's happening in different parts of the country or across time. Every year, Kids Count gives us a breakdown on children's well-being by state and county.
Getting a reliable picture of where we as a nation have put our federal resources to improve the lives of children and youth has not been so easy. The federal budget does not break things down according to who benefits by age.
The newest Children's Budget report turns the federal budget into an easy to grasp and fascinating (seriously!) look at our nation's priorities by outlining how much goes to children and youth, what we're pay for, and how it's changed over time.
This year includes a special focuses on the stimulus package, a bright spot in an otherwise dim picture.
In the early 1990s, the Children's Defense Fund created a compelling poster—a baby with a big bulls-eye on his diaper. The exact slogan escapes me now but the point was: it's too easy for policymakers to target kids when it comes to budget cuts.
The federal budget is, in a word, a beast of a document. So while advocates and researchers (and anyone working in the field) could see and feel the tightening in funds for kids' programs—health care, child welfare, nutrition, schools and after-school programs to name a few—it was difficult for even expert analysts to demonstrate it in real numbers.
Then, the Urban Institute undertook a comprehensive analysis that catalogued spending on children in the federal budget from 1960 to 1997. This first children's budget (LINK http://www.urban.org/publications/310309.htm) showed the trends, and they weren't good: domestic spending as a whole (all government expenditures other than defense and international affairs) grew from 7.9 percent to 16.8 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) the proportion of GDP spending allocated to children changed little.
Released annually, these children's budgets gave policymakers, advocates and families a tool they could really use to help improve the lives of young people. For the first time, they could point to real numbers proving that public dollars spent on children and youth were not keeping pace with inflation, population growth, the growth of the economy and the federal budget overall.
Unfortunately, in 2001, tight nonprofit budgets squeezed out the children's budget project, and an annual children's budget became a relic of the past. Organizations in the field could point to specific and troubling numbers, but there was no overall analysis set up for year-to-year comparisons to substantiate these warnings.
In 2006, at an early meeting with First Focus—a new organization with considerable foundation backing and a relatively clean slate for projects—we at Connect for Kids suggested that as "the new kid on the block" First Focus could well serve the children's advocacy field by resurrecting the children's budget project.
First Focus took the idea and ran with it, taking advantage of improved information technology.
With the new children's budgets, you can manipulate the data yourself. It's like having the camera in your own hands to zoom in on specific details or zoom out to see overall trends in specific sectors.
You can look broadly at topics like health, or narrow in on specific programs and see what they're designed to do and how they've been funded this year and over time. You can also compare funding by category (health, housing, education, etc.) and get a clear view of the impact of inflation on the numbers.
This year's report has some welcome news. After years of steady cuts—federal spending on children now accounts for less than 10 percent of the entire non-defense budget—the recent stimulus package did give children's programs a boost. A special analysis of investments in children provided through the economic recovery package, known as the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) finds that 18 percent of ARRA spending went for America's children.
Wouldn't it be nice if the children's share in the recovery budget set the standard for future federal spending?
For the full 2009 Children's Budget, visit childrensbudget.org.