Child Well-Being as a Guide for State Policy & Budgets

January 30, 2012

Using child well-being to drive state policy and funding can boost child outcomes nationwide.

As today's children move into adulthood, they face a different horizon than previous generations: a higher percentage of today's children are nonwhite; they will inherit $15 Trillion in national debt; and they will be be expected to support a disproportionately large elderly population.

Supporting children as they move from birth to adulthood requires weaving together supports, systems—and funding. A lot of the most critical funding decisions affecting children and youth are made not at the federal level, but at state level, as states decide where to allocate federal, state and local monies. 

At the hearingOn January 26, First Focus and the Foundation for Child Development hosted a congressional briefing, Changing the Frame: Child Well-Being as a Guide for Budget and Policy.  A panel of experts explained the factors influencing state decisions on children, and how placing a priority on child well-being at the state level can improve child outcomes nationwide.

William O’Hare, sr. fellow with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, kicked off the conversation by outlining the 2012 State Child and Youth Well-Being Index, a composite state-level look at child and youth well-being that builds on the National Child Well-Being Index, an annual report on how young people are faring across the country as a whole.

One of the key take-aways from this year's State CWI data is that higher state taxes are correlated with better outcomes for children. The more revenue a state has, the more they are likely to invest in public programs—and states with higher per-pupil spending on education, higher Medicaid child-eligibility thresholds, and higher levels of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits show higher rates of child well-being.

The rest of the panel strengthened O’Hare’s thoughts, with a focused application of the State report findings.

The Fairness Profile: Toward a New Model of Education Funding

David Sciarra of the Education Law Center introduced a Fairness Profile: a data study that catalogued the allocation of funds among public schools in several different states. He argued that states that performed better on the CWI had a progressive level of fairness in their spending, meaning they channeled more state funding to high poverty-concentrated communities than to wealthier districts. Conversely, states that ranked lower on the CWI had a regressive level of fairness.

What we see by comparing the state CWI data and the Fairness Profile, Sciarra said, is that "education spending is not about 'how much,' but are we meeting the real needs" —and by implication,  whether we are meeting them in a manner that's fair and equitable, no matter how wealthy a school district is.

Children's Budgets: Mapping the Big Picture

To understand the impact of spending decisions, you have to know where funds are going—that's not always easy amid complex state budget documents and multiple programs and funding streams.

Children's budgets, which clearly outline all funding going to programs and supports that affect children and families, can help.

Chris Watney, with the Colorado Children’s Campaign, discussed the Colorado’s Children’s Budget—an annual report that indexes state funding for children’s programs. The yearly document provides a historic and non-partisan overview of public investments in children, keeping the state accountable and allowing them to put state money where the public values are.  

Looking Ahead

Tom Gais of the Rockefeller Institute was careful to note that while state funding decisions say a lot about values and priorities, many of the states with low CWI scores lack the fiscal capacity of the higher-performing states. There is hope, however: many of these low-performing states have seen relative economic growth in the last decade, which means they may be able to do better for children in the future.

It stands to reason that investing in programs that positively influence children's and young people's lives will lead to better outcomes for kids and boost the likelihood that they'll grow in adults who are ready to succeed in college, work and life.  

When advocates and other concerned stakeholders understand their state children’s budget and how funding is allocated, they are better able to push for opportunity for all children.

All the PowerPoint slides, fact sheets and data provided from the panel can be access on the First Focus website.

Hannah Lythe is policy assistant with the Forum for Youth Investment, SparkAction's managing partner. You can reach her at hannah[@]


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Hannah Lythe