Public Supports Kids, the Money Doesn’t Follow

July 10, 2015

In an analysis for SparkAction, Patrick Boyle takes a deeper look at federal spending for children and youth.

On the way to a gathering in downtown Washington recently to discuss federal spending on youth, I read an upbeat story about asphalt. The Associated Press reported that a Senate committee had voted “unanimously … to boost spending on highway projects.”

With the economy growing, Congress is starting to invest in long-neglected needs. So why are young people still getting shortchanged?

first focus children's budget 2015

It’s nice to see that the economic recovery is bringing in enough tax dollars for Congress to again invest in long-neglected needs, like transportation infrastructure. So you’d think spirits would have been high at the National Press Club, where more than a hundred people from the youth field had gathered to talk about federal funding for kids.

The June 24 meeting was convened by First Focus, the children’s advocacy organization which each year analyzes federal spending on youth and releases the results in a report, The Children’s Budget

The bottom line: Federal funding for children and youth services has taken a disproportionate hit in recent years, and there is little recovery. While Congress has cut overall spending by 4 percent since 2011, spending on children has dropped by 9 percent. In other words, spending on services for children and young people was cut at more than double the rate of overall funding cuts. For 2015, the share of discretionary federal dollars devoted to this population fell to 7.89 percent, continuing a decline from 8.5 percent in 2010.

No one in the room could claim surprise; government funding for youth is perpetually precarious. What made me tilt my head and think “huh?” were the numbers that followed.

Public Supports Kids

Bruce Lesley, CEO of First Focus, presented a slide show of budget figures and opinion polls results – polls that might make youth advocates think they have a good chance of getting Congress to give youth the same funding priority as bridges. Some samples, from the American Viewpoint poll in 2013 and the Lake Research Partners poll in 2012:

  • Asked, “Do you feel confident or not confident that life for our children’s generation will be better than it has been for our generation,” 67 percent said “not.”
  • Asked what government programs they most oppose cutting, Americans chose social security and Medicare first, then education. Also rating high on the “do not touch” list: child abuse prevention, children’s health and Head Start.
  • When people are given specific policy options, they vote for kids. Here is the support voiced for these government priorities:
    • Cutting child poverty in half – 82 percent.
    • Extending child tax credits – 81 percent
    • Adopting a bi-partisan children’s commission - 78 percent

This is in line with a December 2014 Hart Research poll, commissioned by the Children’s Leadership Council, that finds broad public support for investing in children and youth.

If it’s true that politicians pander to public opinion, how is there such a gap between what the American public says it wants Washington to do and what Washington does?

The Money Doesn’t Follow

First, consider what the polls mean in practical terms. Just about everyone says they support kids. To what degree does that support translate into action for the nation’s youth writ large – such as taking into account a candidate’s votes on youth-related legislation or joining write-in campaigns for reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act?

Perhaps not much. When people voice support for Social Security, Medicare and national defense, they are speaking up for themselves; they and their families will need those things. When it comes to spending on youth services, many people like the concept but they don’t think they have a dog in the fight; that is, they don’t see their own children as having a stake in whether government funding goes up or down. (School spending is one exception.) In his recent book Our Kids, scholar Robert Putnam laments erosion of our “commitment to invest in other people’s kids.”

So for members of Congress, there’s usually little political cost to voting against more funds for youth — unlike the heat they get for limiting funds for other interests. “Some other sectors have huge constituencies around protecting the budget,” Lesley said a couple of days after the Children’s Budget event. “People want to protect the defense of the country, they want to protect senior citizens.”

And if they do take a stand on youth issues, lawmakers feel that there is no strong youth lobby to back them up with their colleagues, their constituents or the news media. “Who’s going to support them if there’s backlash?” asked one audience member at the Press Club event.

Unity Proves Difficult

The diversity of what we call the “youth field” and the myriad priorities of its members has long hampered efforts to create a unified policy voice in Washington. Many have tried to corral the players under a policy agenda, including First Focus and the National Collaboration for Youth, with mixed results.  Compounding their challenge is a diversity dilemma of another sort: As the Forum for Youth Investment notes, “The last time an official count was made, there were 339 federal programs serving disadvantaged youth scattered across 12 departments.”There is no core budget item, like Social Security, around which to rally the troops for young people.

Said Lesley: “We have a lot of line items to defend and weak constituencies to defend them.”

The Children’s Budget is one effort to elevate awareness and build unity. It garnered good coverage in U.S. News & World Report and POLITICO (as well as SparkAction), and First Focus created a digital toolkit to help advocates spread the word about federal investments in youth. Another project of note is the National Human Services Assembly’s work with Frameworks Institute to improve messaging about human services in order to build greater public support for its value. 

One near-term test of unity and messaging will come in the juvenile justice arena, as Congress considers reauthorizing and funding the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, the main federal law covering state systems. Funds have been cut by 50-65 percent in every state over the past 10 years. (More on that HERE).

Meanwhile, all children should learn to pour asphalt. In that, there’s money.

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Patrick Boyle is the Forum for Youth Investment's communications director and a veteran journalist on youth issues. You can reach him at patrick[@]



Patrick Boyle



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