On the Offensive for Children in the Budget

July 23, 2012

2011 is the first year since the early 1980s that there has been a decline in spending on children (down $5 billion).

Summer 2012 in Washington is shaping up to be one of record heat—both from Mother Nature and in the findings of two recent analyses of federal investment in children: the Children’s Budget 2012 from the nonprofit First Focus, and The Urban Institute's Kids’ Share 2012.

Both reports contain detailed analyses of the share of federal spending that touches the lives of children and youth. And both paint a grim picture, one that should spark our collective concern and action.

As you can imagine, it’s no easy task to parse the immense federal budget and identify every dollar that affects this population—but without this, it’s nearly impossible to accurately assess the effectiveness of government-funded programs for children and young people. So three cheers for the tireless researchers who crunch these numbers each year.

Here are some highlights, and thoughts on where we go from here.

Where Are We Now?

Some key take-aways from the reports:

  • 2011 is the first year since the early 1980s that there has been a decline in spending on children ($5 billion cut).  Overall investments in children dropped 2.4 percent.  2012 will warrant even larger reductions due to the decline in ARRA spending.
  • The national poverty rate among seniors is 9 percent, while the poverty rate for children averages roughly 22 percent.Federal spending for seniors is more than 6 times greater than the amount spent on children.
  • Defense spending is triple the federal investment in our nation’s children.
  • Discretionary spending on children has declined by about $2 billion, or 7.3 percent, since 2010.
  • Estimates vary, but it is expected that by as early as 2014 the federal government will spend more on federal interest obligations (on our national debt) than on children.

As most state leaders will tell you, there is far more spending on kids at the state level. In fact, according to the Urban Institute, state and local governments shoulder about two-thirds of all public spending on children—twice the federal government’s share. Yet the news is equally as bleak at the state level.  States don’t have the luxury of borrowing money from foreign countries to fill their budget holes, and it is expected that the sluggish economic recovery will continue to restrict state’s abilities to keep up with rising costs and demand for services.

Further complicating the picture is the fact that over the past decade, the nation’s child population has shifted from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and Southwest, states that have historically spent less per pupil and have more limited tax structures than the states with declining child populations.

What Can We Do?

When it comes to child well-being, there are elements we can’t control—but government spending is not one of them.

The long days of Congressional gridlock, it turns out, are terrible for kids. We’re staring down the barrel of long-term, significant disinvestment in kids. If nothing changes, spending on children will drop by 24 percent from 2011 to 2019.

If that sounds almost unbelievable, consider these looming threats: the sequestration’s automatic cuts which will hit effective and necessary programs including education, early childhood, and child abuse prevention among many others; a FY13 budget from the U.S. House that is expected to cut as deep or deeper than those in the previous two years; the expiration of several key federal policies, including the Child Tax Credit and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP); and Congress’s marked unwillingness to consider additional revenue sources. 

When it comes to family well-being, there are certainly economic elements we can’t control, but government spending—how much, how it’s structured, and how we measure its effectiveness—is not one of them.

Listening to the speakers and thinking back on my experience as a child advocate and consultant to state and local governments, a few key goals rose to the top of my wish list.

  • Prioritize the allocation of resources:  The right way to budget is to clearly identify our national priorities and allocate resources to these priorities accordingly.  As a nation, the federal budget identifies our top priorities, by a long margin, as national defense and health care for seniors.  Is that what voters really want?
  • Work collaboratively to use limited resources:  The Urban Institute report notes the need for both federal and state agencies to work together when creating departmental budgets to address the concerns of children as a whole.  Some states have Children’s Cabinets that are working together across agencies to put dollar amounts and populations together, thinking collaboratively about ways to prioritize limited investments in youth. 
  • Praise politicians when they do take action for youth:  Since children do not vote and lack the ability to contribute to PACs or Super PACs, we must take specific action to thank politicians for doing right by kids when they do.  Let’s celebrate politicians when they lead for children.  Thank you Congresswoman DeLauro (D-Conn.), for standing up for children at the First Focus event!
  • Invest limited resources more effectively:  In the modern era of information abundance, it’s about time the government included performance measurements in our investments.  Not enough attention has been devoted to understanding the return on government investments, be those children or otherwise.  With limited resources and a climate of continuing budgetary concerns expected over the next decade, let’s evaluate the effectiveness of programmatic investments and adjust spending to proven programs.
  • Set a National Child Poverty Target:  following the example set by the United Kingdom, several U.S. states—including Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Minnesota, Oregon, and Vermont and Illinois—have set goals of reducing poverty, usually by 50 percent over 10 years. Helping children overcome poverty will make a huge difference not only to their lives but to the lives of their families, communities and to society as a whole. Ending child poverty means tackling a wide range of complex and often intertwined issues, including child welfare, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, mental health, juvenile justice, post-secondary completion, and homelessness; to name a few.
  • Create a national Children’s Cabinet:  Child advocacy organizations can only do so much. Leaders at the federal agency level must be able to work together, and be held accountable. A national children’s cabinet, created by Congress and protected from party politics, would have a mandate to fairly and impartially address children’s rights, with its principal mission to ensure that children become more central to U.S. agendas, policies, plans and budgets. Children’s Cabinets, Children’s Ombudsman, Commissioners for Children, or other independent institutions for the protection of children’s rights now exist in about 40 countries.

We’re Not Soft
The biggest take-away message for me, in the words of First Focus president Bruce Lesley, is that advocates need to stop playing defense, and “hoping for nothing to happen in Congress.” 

Advocating for children and youth is not an easy job, despite the fact that you'll never find a politician who isn't in favor of better outcomes for kids. As David Brooks noted: “Most of the policy decision-makers are middle-age white guys and you talk to them about early childhood and they pat you on the head and then want to go talk about the defense budget."

We need to go on the offensive and demand better than the least-worst scenario. We need to do more to protect the programs that work, and support better policies for kids and youth.  

Helpful Resources

Jennifer Ouellete is Senior Policy Associate and Elizabeth Gaines is Director of Policy at the Forum for Youth Investment, SparkAction's managing partner.  Reach the Forum's policy team at elizabeth@forumfyi.org.


Tweet this blog: The new analyses of fed spending on kids: we need to demand better than the least-worst scenario http://bit.ly/SS4c0l

Blurb and link: The Forum for Youth Investment's Elizabeth Gaines & Jennifer Ouellette take a look at two annual children's budgets, released in the summer of 2012. The bottom line: We need to demand better than the least-worst scenario.

Jennifer Ouellette and Elizabeth Gaines