Making Kids a Priority in the Federal Budget

July 24, 2012

How big a slice of the federal budget pie gets served to kids? According to a new Urban Institute report, it’s about one-tenth of the overall budget. In 2011, the slice got smaller for the first time in 30 years. And if the U.S. doesn’t change its priorities when it comes to budgeting, it’s going to get even smaller.

Key findings of the annual Kids' Share report show that while the size and make-up of expenditures on children have changed over the last 50 years, children have not been a priority in the federal budget priority:

  • Federal spending on children fell by $2 billion, from $378 billion in 2010 to $376 billion in 2011.
  • While the federal government spent less on children, total federal spending increased, from $3.52 to $3.60 trillion. As a result, the share of the federal budget allocated to children fell from 10.7 to 10.4 percent.
  • Ten programs and tax provisions account for three-quarters (75 percent) of the $445 billion in expenditures on children. These include Medicaid, TANF, and SNAP.
  • Federal spending on education was $5 billion lower in 2011 than in 2010.

Why do kids need a bigger slice of the pie? Aside from their growing bodies, there are many compelling reasons.

First, time is of the essence. Child poverty rose in 2010 as families continued to feel the effects of the recession. Government spending on children goes toward not only education, health and safety, but also toward helping to protect families from financial hardship. Cutting spending on children now puts families further at risk.

Second, the federal budget accounts for only one-third of spending on children, with states and localities making up the rest. As they’re faced with budget cuts, states and localities will be hard-pressed to make up the difference for kids and families. That’s why the federal government’s share is so important.

Third, experts say that it’s not dollars and cents that prevent the U.S. from spending more on children. We have the funds. It’s a matter of how we allocate them.

Marc Goldwein, senior policy director of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, says the conversation about balancing the federal budget should shift from numbers to priorities.

“We’re the richest country in the history of the world, but we have poverty,” Goldwein says. “We say we can’t afford tax cuts, but that’s only because we’ve made decisions on where we’re going to spend our money and we’re locked into them.”

According to the Urban Institute, the budget is projected to grow by nearly 1 trillion ($965 billion) between now and 2022, but less than 1% of that growth will go to children. Under current policies, beginning in 2017 the federal government will spend more on interest payments than on children.

Eugene Steurle, Institute Fellow and the Richard B Fisher Chair at the Urban Institute, says that the children’s budget is getting squeezed not because of revenue concerns, but because of how we’re allocating our spending. “This is a straightjacket that we’ve tied around ourselves,” Steurle. “The problem is a political one, not an economic one.”

So what do you think? How do we craft a federal budget that gives kids their fair share? And how do we get our leaders to “untie the straightjacket?”

Read Kids' Share 2012: Report on Federal Expenditures on Children Through 2011 >>

Julee Newberger is a freelance writer and contributing editor to SparkAction.



Julee Newberger