Budget Analysts & Child Advocates: A Dangerous Divide?

November 8, 2011

Last month, the Urban Institute held a spirited discussion on “National Priorities and Children: How Do They Come Together?"  Six distinguished professionals and a moderator—experts in federal budget policy and child and youth issues, respectively—came together to talk about what's really going on in Congress, what the public sees as priorities, and what it means for America’s 74 million children.

The panel was held in conjunction with the release of Today's Children, Tomorrow's America: Six Experts Face the Facts, an anthology of analysis from the panelists on how we might tackle the budget crisis while protecting children. It's a challenge that so far, our nation seems far from resolving.

Here are my take-aways. I'd love to hear yours.

Starting the Conversation

The paper and the accompanying panel are an attempt to bring child advocates and researchers together with budget experts to talk about the state of children and the state of the budget—and what we can do to create better out comes in both areas.

The event was spearheaded by Olivia Golden, Urban Institute Fellow and former staff member of the Department of Health and Human Services, who has long felt a disconnect between these classes of experts. 

Getting them together in the same room is rare, Golden has observed—and for good reason, it appears: despite the fact that both ultimately want the same thing for America, getting these groups on same page about how we do that proved difficult.

What We Know

The short story: According to Margaret Simms of the Low-Income Working Families project,  more kids now are starting out below the poverty line than in previous genearations. Therefore, more kids right from the start are disadvantaged in education, career opportunities, and life.

Simms also shared that 10 percent of all children in the states are persistently poor.  It's become a cyclical problem and a dangerous course of events for both today's youth and tomorrow's workforce and citizenry. 

There's plenty of research showing that experiences in the early years of a child's life are critical to how that child learns, interacts and succeeds later in life—in short, whether he or she will be ready for college, work and a successful adulthood. As Simms shares in her segment of the report, recent census data shows that more than one-fifth of all children under age 18 lived in poverty in 2010, 25 percent of those under age six were poor. By race and ethnicity, it looks worse.

And yet, as Olivia Golden pointed out, public spending today on education (and other things) is the reverse of what would make sense based on this research. The public invests less time and money and fewer resources in the early years than we do in the later years.

What's In Our Way?

Read the report:

As you'd expect, the panelists all agreed that it is complicated.

It may be in part that we as a nation struggle with the very idea of making investments in the future.  "There is a cultural and political mess of mindsets" that disallow us from looking ahead and investing as we should, said Charles Kolb, president of the Committee for Economic Development. 

Kolb argued that unlike other countries, the U.S. has a harder time valuing human capital and investing in it. Our attention span as a country is short and we fundamentally have a hard time looking further ahead than the next fiscal year. With that mindset, it's difficult to really believe (especially in tight times) the connection between investing in children’s early years and education and a strong workforce.

Solution: Going corporate? To me the phrase "human capital"  sounds so corporate—it immediately got me thinking about business models and value propositions. And in fact, the role of corporations and the private sector sparked some very interesting discussions during the panel.

Robert Reischauer, president of the Urban Institute and former director of the Congressional Budget Office, noted that business leaders are trained in forward-thinking strategies and making investments.  There is an opprtunity here, he said, to bring that frame into our legislation by helping to train Congress to "think forward."

Failing that, he said, advocates may want to try bringing in powerful corporate players to advocate for causes like education.  Personally, I'm leery of inviting the private sector into education more than it is already.  But Reischauer made a compelling case that it's something to consider if we can’t get Congress to pass federal laws.

Bigger, broader messaging: Raymond Scheppach, former executive director of the National Governors Association,  made the point that advocates will be more effective in rallying public support if we think (and talk) about a bigger picture. A strong approach in advocating and raising awareness of the budget process, he said,  is to make it universal—to remember that even though kids are our focus, the public and Congress have broad concerns. We can do better to make the case for how our issues fit in with others, from the environment and transportation to housing, etc.

The state challenge: Jim Kolbe, senior transatlantic fellow of German Marshall Fund of the United States and former Member of the U.S. House of Representatives pointed out that education and some other child-focused programs have historically been the responsibility of states. While much of the money for the states came from the feds, the allocations are set by states and local boards. Therefore, bringing child-focused programs to the federal platform takes a shift in paradigm for federal policymakers, and an extra challenge for advocates who want to see change. Perhaps this is the reason that the value of these programs is not clear to those putting them on the chopping block.     

"Canyons of Thought"

As I listened to this diverse group of experts, it was clear to me that there is a big difference in the mindset and approaches each, based largely on whether their background is in budget policy or child and youth issues.

Budget experts see a need for an overhaul of institutions, and large-scale structural changes that must happen before we can truly and productively focus on kids, or any specific issue, and allocate the money they need.  Advocates, on the other hand, want to see more immediate changes that will help the people who are suffering today, right now—they want to see those who are hungry today have food to eat today

Observing these big canyons in thought and approach on this panel, I found myself wondering where that common ground lies where diverse thoughts can come together and solve this issue.  Yes, it is necessary to take many ideas and approaches into consideration when facing a problem of this scale. If we had the time, resources, and desires to continue to sit down and have the type of conversation that I observed on the panel, that perhaps a mutual understanding, goal, and process could be determined.  However, in the desperation--and upcoming deadline--to make budget decisions for the year, a huge disconnect still remains.  It's a disconnect that lies at the core of our democracy and at the core of these diverse schools of thought, and it's a compromise that will take more than a bipartisan "Super Committee" to solve.

What do you think? Is this a problem? And how can we move forward? (And should we "go corporate?") Please share your thoughts in the Comment section below.

Get more on these experts' ideas in Today's Children, Tomorrow's America, and check out the panel for yourself in this video recording:


Alison Beth Waldman is Editorial Assistant at SparkAction. Email her at alison@sparkaction.org.

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Alison Beth Waldman