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What does the President’s budget say about how we value children?

| February 11, 2020 |

Yesterday, President Trump released a $4.8 trillion budget proposal that would impose massive cuts to critical programs that children and families rely on every day.

The proposal calls for $200 billion in cuts to programs that combat childhood poverty like SNAP and TANF, eliminated 29 programs from the Department of Education — including specific funding that helps homeless (McKinney-Vento Act) and low-income students (Title I), not to mention a $920 billion cut to Medicaid and CHIP which provide vital care that keep kids healthy.

“The budget is a moral document,” First Focus on Children president Bruce Lesley said in a statement yesterday. “Although we fully expect both Democrats and Republicans in Congress to reject these cuts as they have in the past, we are dismayed that the president places so little value on our nation’s children.”

The President’s budget — which Congressional leaders have already blasted as “devastating” and a “double-cross” — proposes a $1.5 trillion cut over 10 years to non-defense discretionary spending, which takes aim specifically at children. As we noted last year, 82% of all programs that benefit children fall into this category — from health to education to financial security to nutrition and others.

Last year, the President unsuccessfully tried to eliminate more than 40 children’s programs and make cuts to hundreds more. And while this budget proposal is once again unlikely to pass, it does speak to the Administration’s priorities. In recent weeks, we’ve seen efforts that put children in harm’s way by allowing states to arbitrarily cap Medicaid, unfairly target the children of immigrants, place undue burdens on the families of children with disabilities, not to mention a two-day hearing on a multitude of policies — on child poverty, housing, hunger, and health — being pursued by this Administration that would threaten children.

As Bruce Lesley noted in our annual Children’s Budget report last year, “Children are often an afterthought among federal policymakers in this process. Time and time again, children’s policy issues are ignored or neglected by Congress.” Our report found that the share of federal spending dedicated to children would have been just 6.45% if President Trump’s budget was enacted completely in FY20 — a $20 billion cut since FY 2015. And, for the first time in U.S. history, we are spending more to service the national debt than we are on the children who will inherit it.

If a budget documents our values and priorities — what does this year’s budget say about how we value children?

Oversight Committee holds two days of hearings on four threats to America’s children

| February 5, 2020 |

On February 5 and 6, 2020, the Committee on Oversight and Reform conducted an in-depth, two-day series of hearings held by four of its subcommittees to examine the negative effects of regulations proposed by the Trump Administration relating to children. This unique and extensive series of hearings assessed the detrimental impact of the Administration’s actions on child poverty, housing, hunger, and health.

First Focus Campaign for Children was proud to join a broad coalition of nonprofit and faith-based groups from across the nation in support of these hearings. We stand together in the belief that no child in the world’s wealthiest nation should go to bed hungry or be deprived of clean air or be without a safe, affordable place to call home. The proposed rules assessed at these hearings collectively rob children of the American Dream and deprive the future of healthy, happy, productive adults.

Below are a few highlights from the four hearings:

A Threat to America’s Children: The Trump Administration’s Proposed Changes to the Poverty Line Calculation

Not enough kids are poor.

Advocates and experts told members of the Government Operations Subcommittee that current federal poverty guidelines underestimate the number of people experiencing poverty in America and that any changes to the measure should seek to correct that deficit.

“The Federal Poverty Guidelines say that I’m not poor, but I cashed in a jar full of change the other night so that my daughter could attend a high school dance competition,” said Amy Jo Hutchison, an organizer with West Virginia’s Healthy Kids and Families Coalition. “Believe me, I’ve pulled myself up by the bootstraps so many damn times that I ripped them off.”

The hearing, aimed at a Trump Administration proposal to rejigger the poverty line calculation in a way that would shed hundreds of thousands of children and families from benefit programs, was the first in a series of four to be held this week by the Committee. Collectively titled “A Threat to America’s Children,” the hearings will address Trump Administration proposals that side-step the will and intent of Congress by rolling back bipartisan legislation on poverty, homelessness, nutrition and environmental health.

Testimony and questions broke down along party lines. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez(D-NY), who is sponsoring the “Recognizing Poverty Act,” sat in the witness chair and set the tone by saying even by the flawed calculations, 40 million Americans are considered to be living in poverty.

“We do not want to recognize the level of poverty in this country,” she said, “because if we did, it would be a national scandal.”

The Administration’s proposal assumes that families living in poverty enjoy the same consumer choice and price comparison options as wealthier families, Network Lobby Executive Director Sister Simone Campbell told lawmakers. In fact, she said, their limited options mean they are already living at the very edge. Indi Dutta Gupta of Georgetown University Law School’s Center on Poverty stressed that health, nutrition and other programs that rely on poverty line calculations contribute to American economic prosperity by strengthening children. Republican witness Rob Smith, an African-American Army veteran, and rising conservative pundit, blasted assistance programs as projecting a “soft bigotry of low expectations” and proclaimed that he is “not a victim.” He advocated self-reliance and attributed his emergence from a low-income childhood in Akron, Ohio to a strong sense of self.

Ms. Hutchinson offered lawmakers what she said will be the most effective remedy for children and families experiencing poverty.

“If we start talking more to poor folks and not about them,” she said, “that’s how we’re going to fix this problem.”

A Threat to America’s Children: The Trump Administration’s Proposal to Gut Fair Housing Accountability

A Threat to America’s Children: The Trump Administration’s Proposed Changes to Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

Advocates, educators and parents told the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy that the Trump Administration’s proposal to change state eligibility options for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) would deny food assistance to nearly 3.1 million people and put free school meals in jeopardy for nearly 1 million children.

“This SNAP proposal is a gut shot to those least equipped to take the blow or to fight back,” said Diane Sullivan, a mom and advocate who calls herself “an expert in the experience of hunger.” She and her children, who live in the high-cost state of Massachusetts, are among the millions who will lose benefits, including school meals. 

Sam Adolphsen, Vice President of Executive Affairs at the Naples, Fla.-based think tank the Foundation for Government Accountability, hailed the Administration’s proposal as a “simple, common sense rule” that would push financially struggling families toward “self-sufficiency” and “the American Dream.” Adolphsen cast the provision in question as an “open door to fraud and abuse,” offering the anecdote of a recipient in Maine who owned an airplane.

“I am not a fraud,” Sullivan said. “I work. I do the best I can, just like everyone in this room. I want the best for my children.”

The Administration acknowledges that the measure would increase food insecurity. According to its own analysis, the Administration estimates that 1.9 million people — 1.2 million of them children— would lose SNAP benefits.

A Threat to America’s Children: The Trump Administration’s Proposal to Undermine Protections from Mercury Air Toxics Standards

Proposed rule will be burdensome for families of children with disabilities

| January 31, 2020 |

In November 2019, the Trump administration published a proposed rule in the Federal Register, “Rules Regarding the Frequency and Notice of Continuing Disability Reviews” from the Social Security Administration (SSA). Comments, originally due on January 17th, were postponed and due today, January 31st. At this writing, there are over 120,000 comments posted on, and we hope more will be posted before midnight tonight.

For someone who is not a Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) expert, this rule was complicated and convoluted. As I learned more and spoke with people who receive these benefits, along with other experts, I discovered the proposed rule was convoluted and unclear to most of us.

Essentially what is happening in the rule is: the SSA plans to increase the number of Continuing Disability Reviews (CDR) for people who receive SSI and SSDI. The added frequency of reviews will be burdensome in terms of time and cost to families, as well as the administration, and the SSA has not shown how many people will lose benefits, nor precisely why these added reviews are needed.

We know that children and their families will be harmed due to additional CDRs. Complicated administrative paperwork that takes hours and the help of medical staff to fill out means parents will have less time and money to take care of their children with disabilities and tend to their jobs and other responsibilities. We oppose this proposed rule and submitted comments today.

Below is an excerpt from the comments we submitted:

More Frequent CDRs Will Be Burdensome for Families of Children with Disabilities

The families of children with disabilities face many difficulties throughout their days. Managing medical appointments, recurring illness, filling, and managing prescriptions, getting to and from work, school, and/or childcare all take on a different meaning when it involves a child with disabilities. Parents may be in constant contact with a school or child care center related to their child’s condition and needed care or treatment. Access to prescribed medicine may be a struggle. Transportation to and from medical appointments, school, and/or childcare can may require much planning and asking others for help. If these families are also receiving lower wages and/or working at inflexible jobs with shifts, they have a harder time staying connected to work and thus their families are at higher risk of eviction, losing their utilities, and may become food insecure.

Families of kids with disabilities will have to schedule and attend more frequent doctor appointments in order to complete the CDR, creating a burden for them. Paying for copies of medical records is financially burdensome. Asking employers to complete comprehensive employment data in the Mailer could be an annoyance and create a rift between the employee and the employer. Some of the forms may be too complex for some individuals with disabilities and/or their families to fill out, prompting them to miss answers or seek out help that will cost money. Families struggling to make ends meet, care for their children with disabilities and perhaps their own health needs do not have extra time to spend on arduous administrative red tape and paperwork.

In 2015 alone, 34% of initial cessations were reversed on appeal – revealing that this system does not work as it is now and should not be made more frequent. This is not the right step to improve the system.

‘Invisibilizing’ Homeless Children

| January 29, 2020 |

Childhood should be a time to grow, learn, play and feel safe. As Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City writes:

Home is where children find safety and security, where we find our identities, where citizenship starts. It usually starts with believing you’re part of a community, and that is essential to having a stable home.

Whether by government, the larger society, and even some parents, children and their needs are often treated as an afterthought, or even worse, purposely excluded or made invisible. Whether intentionally or not, the concerns and needs of children are often ignored, dismissed, or marginalized, as some political leaders look the other way.

In the case of children who are homeless, some Members of Congress and bureaucrats at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) remain quite purposeful in their exclusion of children from being identified as homeless and from receiving any assistance.

For example, HUD has such a narrow and restrictive definition of homelessness that it does not count children and youth that are identified as homeless by schools, domestic violence shelters, or runaway and homeless youth programs. The result is that the vast majority of homeless children are not counted in HUD’s “point-in-time” (PIT) count. Since they are not identified as being homeless, the vast majority of children and families are diverted from or excluded from receiving critically important services or protections.

Underscoring this problem, in its 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report Part I (AHAR), HUD estimates that just 53,692 parents and children experienced homelessness during the agency’s January 2019 count.

Barbara Duffield, executive director for SchoolHouse Connection explains:

HUD’s data perpetuates a fundamentally dishonest conversation about homelessness. It keeps homeless children, youth, and families invisible, and ignores their growing ranks in public schools and early childhood programs. We won’t make a dent in reducing homelessness until we acknowledge how children and youth experience it, and reform federal, state, and local policies to meet their needs.

In sharp contrast to HUD, the U.S. Department of Education rightfully recognizes that homeless children are those who “lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence,” including those:

  • doubled up due to loss of housing or economic hardship;
  • living in motels, trailer parks or campgrounds;
  • living in emergency or transitional shelters;
  • abandoned in hospitals;
  • awaiting foster care placement; and,
  • living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations.

Therefore, while HUD has chosen to look away or “invisibilize” the true problem, public schools identified more than 1.5 million homeless students in the 2017–2018 school year, according to recently released (on 1/29/20) data from the Department of Education, a 10 percent increase over the previous school year.

HUD is failing children and families. According to Joe Willard, Vice President for Policy, People’s Emergency Center, Philadelphia:

Philadelphia’s PIT numbers under-report thousands of youth and families who experience homelessness. The School District identified 7,112 children and youth who experienced homelessness in the 2017–2018 School Year, compared to the 1,271 children under 18 years of age identified by the PIT count in FY 2018. As a result, Philadelphia devotes very few resources to addressing youth homelessness. In addition, the City “diverts” or “prevents” families away from accessing emergency housing, but does not consider that number in its PIT calculations. These experiences undermine Philadelphia’s ability to adequately address family and youth homelessness.

Therefore, without HUD’s recognition and assistance, homeless families with children are often forced into the shadows and must seek other means of shelter that can sometimes put their children at risk. While HUD creates a caste system whereby families with children are ignored or brushed aside, kids move from one temporary place to another, are more likely to stop attending school, and more often become the victims of violence, abuse, neglect, trauma, and sexual exploitation.

As the Denver Post’s Jennifer Brown explains, “Children who are homeless are eight times more likely to suffer abuse and neglect than other children.”

Cheryl Camany, homeless liaison for the Salinas City Elementary School District in California, told reporter Brian Goldstone that she identified 3,566, or 40 percent of elementary school-age students, as homeless in the prior year. Under HUD’s policy, which excludes children from assistance and its annual PIT count, just 150 homeless families were identified in the entire county.

Despite a rapidly growing crisis on homelessness for children in Salinas, California, where the number of homeless children has grown from 2,042 in 2012–2013 to 3,566 in 2018–2019 — a 75 percent increase in just six years — HUD was reporting a 15 percent decline in homelessness.

Intentionally looking away, “invisibilizing”, undercounting, and ignoring the trauma that so many homeless children and youth are facing in our country does not solve the problem.

As 12-year-old Brooklyn Pastor from Shirley, NY testified before the House Committee on Financial Services on December 15, 2011:

I’ve lived in over sixteen places in my life: six shelters, four times doubled-up with many different people, and we had our own house six times. We also had to go to emergency motel rooms many other times, in between shelters and houses… I really hate moving from place to place. It is so hard because you get to know people and then have to move. It has made my life hard… I would like people to know that it is different going through this then just hearing about it. You may not have ever experienced being homeless. It is worse than hearing about it or watching a movie about it. You are in it. There are a lot of kids going through it.

In this video of that testimony from Brooklyn along with witnesses Brandon Dunlop (Chicago, IL), Rumi Khan (Carlisle, PA), Brittany Amber Koon (Ft. Hood, TX), Destiny Raynor (Sanford, FL), and Starnica Rodgers (Chicago, IL). It is tragic that Congress and HUD still have not addressed the issue nearly eight years later.

These young people were all homeless, but throughout much of their families’ struggles, HUD and some Members of Congress pretended they were not. To HUD, these children simply do not count — both literally and figuratively — and the consequences are tragic.

Duffield explains:

It’s a crazy logic. It basically says: We don’t see homeless families, so we don’t have any here, therefore we don’t have to help them.

In a 2014 report entitled America’s Youngest Outcasts, the National Center on Family Homelessness explains:

Children experiencing homelessness are among the most invisible and neglected individuals in our nation. Despite their ever-growing number, homeless children have no voice and no constituency. Without a bed to call their own, they have lost safety, privacy, and the comforts of home, as well as friends, pets, possessions, reassuring routines, and community. These losses combine to create a life-altering experience that inflicts profound and lasting scars.

Paul Kosowsky, Chief Executive Officer at Youth Continuum in New Haven, Connecticut, adds:

These youth are survivors, but not without a great deal of damage to them along the way. The statistic regarding homeless youth to increased risks of sexual assault, drug use, HIV/AIDS, prostitution, pregnancy, and incarceration, as well as lower graduation and employment rates, clearly indicate that these young people are not being given the opportunity for a bright, productive future that we hold out to young people in America.

Children making their way through life homeless, impoverished, abandoned, hungry, vulnerable, neglected, and abused deserve better from us. They deserve a childhood where they can grow, learn, play, and feel safe rather than endure a daily struggle at the margins of society.

One solution would be for Congress to pass H.R. 2001, the bipartisan Homeless Children and Youth Act (HCYA) by Reps. Steve Stivers (R-OH) and Dave Loebsack (D-IA).

The bill would align HUD’s definition of homelessness with those of other federal programs, such as the Department of Education. This would eliminate paperwork barriers to assistance for children, improve interagency coordination, and improve the ability of local communities to assess and serve the most vulnerable children, youth, and adults.

The legislation also recognizes that children are not little adults and that the needs of families with children are often quite different from the one-size-fits-all “housing first” model used by HUD for veterans and chronically homeless adults. H.R. 2001 achieves this by allowing services and assistance to be tailored to address the unique needs of each homeless population in their community.

Claas Ehlers and Kat Lilley, CEO and Board member of Family Promise, respectively, are absolutely correct. As Lilley further explains in testimony before the House Committee on Financial Services on June 6, 2018:

Children, youth, and families are unable to access appropriate and necessary housing assistance and services because current HUD definition of homelessness disqualifies them appropriate interventions and standard prioritization, not based on their vulnerability or need, but based on which couch or floor they were able to sleep on last night. We, as communities and a nation, are working to serve the most vulnerable when addressing homelessness. To truly accomplish this, we must stop excluding children and youth from the conversations and allow them to have equal access to the current housing assistance and services. The Homeless Children and Youth Act does just this.

Maternal and Infant Mortality: What Does the Data Tell Us and What Can We Do?

| November 18, 2019 |

The United States has some of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the developed world and they continue to rise.

African-American women are at especially high risk and are three times more likely to die from maternal health issues than their white counterparts. African-American babies are more than twice as likely as white babies to die within their first year of life, and American Indian and Alaskan Native babies are nearly twice as likely.  

Four experts in maternal and infant mortality outlined this crisis for members of Congress and their staff during a standing-room-only briefing on November 19 on Capitol Hill. Reps. Alma S. Adams, Ph.D, (D-NC) and Lauren Underwood (D-IL), co-chairs of the Black Maternal Health Caucus, hosted the event along with First Focus on Children and the March of Dimes.

Our four expert speakers discussed the role of structural racism in the racial disparities in maternal and infant mortality rates; trends at the national and state levels; the importance of federal health care coverage policies in combating maternal and infant mortality; and steps that are being taken in states such as Illinois and Texas to improve care and outcomes for women and babies. 

Panelists included:

Below are some of the materials shared at the briefing:

A recording of the briefing and all slides can be found below:

Maternal and Infant Mortality: What Does the Data Tell Us and What Can We Do?

Congressional Briefing Live from Capitol Hill — Maternal and Infant Mortality: What Does the Data Tell Us and What Can We Do?

Posted by First Focus on Children on Tuesday, November 19, 2019

New principles for child care define vision for high-quality, affordable care

| October 10, 2019 |

Child care is one of the greatest multi-taskers that exists – it simultaneously provides both early care and education for our youngest citizens, enables parents to work and attend school, provides an economic driver for business that ensures a stable workforce, and employs more than one million workers. Each of us, whether we have children or not, has a stake in the success of child care in this country. First Focus on Children is proud to be a co-signer of Principles for Child Care: A Vision for Investing in High-Quality, Affordable Child Care. Signed by more than 25 advocacy organizations, this document lays out the core principles any comprehensive child care proposal must have. Combining high-quality, access, affordability, and a well-supported workforce will improve our child care system to provide the care, education and economic stability we need for the success of our children and the national economy.

Our current child care system has many challenges and areas for improvement:

Most American families cannot afford child care. For one infant, a two-income household spends more than 10.6 percent of its income on child care. A single-parent household spends 37 percent of its income on child care. The cost of child care for two children exceeds mortgage costs for homeowners in 35 states and the District of Columbia. And child care fees for two children in a child care center exceeds annual median rent payments in each and every state[1].

Insufficient child care hurts our economy. The annual cost of lost productivity, earnings and revenue to our economy due to child care problems tops $57 billion[2].

Our early childhood professionals are grossly underpaid. In 2017, child care workers earned less than two-thirds of the median wage for all occupations in their states[3]. Child care workers in 21 states and Washington, D.C. would have to spend more than half of their income to pay for center-based care for their own infants. Forty-six percent of early childhood professionals rely on one or more public support programs annually[4].

And yet, our youngest children’s brains are making more neural connections than at any other time in their lives, making it a critical time for learning and development. The settings that our children spend their days in matter for improved outcomes in health, well-being, education, economic stability and reduced involvement in the criminal justice system[5]. We must do better for our children, their families, the professionals who care for them every day and our economy.

As outlined in these Principles for Child Care, First Focus on Children believes that all children should receive high-quality child care; that families should be able to access the high-quality child care setting that best meets their needs; should get the financial support they need to afford high-quality child care; and that early childhood professionals in all settings should receive the support, resource, and compensation they need to provide high-quality care and to support their own families.

This is an investment that is worth making and that we must make.

[1]The U.S. and the High Cost of Child Care,”Childcare Aware, 2018

[2]Want to grow the economy? Fix the child care crisis,” Ready Nation, 2019

[3]Early Childhood Workforce Index, 2018,” Center for the Study of Child Care Employment

[4]Child care workers aren’t paid enough to make ends meet,” Economic Policy Institute, November 2015

[5]Research Summary: The Lifecycle Benefits of an Influential Early Childhood Program,” Heckman.

Tennessee Proposes to Block Grant Medicaid and Ration Care for its Children

| September 25, 2019 |

When it comes to making public policy related to children, the vast majority of Americans support the notion that public policy and government should act in the “best interest of the child” or, at the very least, “do no harm” to children.

Unfortunately, far too often, children are either an afterthought or worse. In the case of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s proposal to convert Medicaid into a block grant or per capita capped program, it is disturbing — but sadly not surprising — that children are actually targeted and disproportionately placed in harm’s way.

A Medicaid block grant or per capita cap is simply an arbitrary financial limit that a state would receive from the federal government to provide health care. According to a recent analysis of the potential impact of recent proposals to cap Medicaid, Avalere Health estimates for a potential loss of federal funding to states, specifically for children, of $93 to $163 billion for FY 2020–2029 nationally. As Avalere explains:

A reduction in federal Medicaid funding would require states to reduce spending in Medicaid or in other areas of their budget. In particular, states may reduce eligibility for coverage, limit access to covered benefits or services, increase beneficiary cost sharing or decrease payment for care. . .

The Tennessee concept paper to radically, and likely illegally, (more on that later) transform the Medicaid program by Gov. Lee’s administration would likely seek a waiver from the Medicaid law from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) later this fall after three public hearings between October 1–3 in Nashville, Knoxville and Jackson, respectively.

Arbitrarily capping the Medicaid program, whether block grants or per capita caps, has been shown to create enormous shortfalls in funding to provide health coverage to low-income senior citizens, people with disabilities, children and adults that receive health coverage. In a review of legislative proposals to impose Medicaid per capita caps in Congress and to address likely significant shortfalls in funding, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) wrote:

. . .enrollees could face more significant effects if a state reduced providers’ payment rates or payments to managed care plans, cut covered services, or curtailed eligibility — either in keeping with current law or to a greater extent, if given the flexibility. If states reduced payment rates, fewer providers might be willing to accept Medicaid patients, especially given that, in many cases, Medicaid’s rates are already significantly below those of Medicare or private insurance for some of the same services. If states reduced payments to Medicaid managed care plans, some plans might shrink their provider networks, curtail quality assurance, or drop out of the program altogether. If states reduced covered services, some enrollees might decide either to pay out of pocket or to forgo those services entirely. And if states narrowed their categories of eligibility (including the optional expansion under the ACA), some of those enrollees would lose access to Medicaid coverage. . . .

This proposal comes at a time when the nation’s uninsured rate is heading in the wrong direction. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the uninsured rate across the country increased from 25.6 million to 27.5 million between 2017 to 2018 or from 7.9 to 8.5 percent.

For children, the Census Bureau finds that the uninsured rate rose from 5.0 to 5.5 percent from 2017 to 2018, which represents an 11 percent increase, and that the overall number of uninsured children rose by 425,000 to 4.3 million.

We should not be heading backward. Every person in this country should have access to high-quality health insurance coverage. Instead of setting arbitrary caps and putting in place the bureaucracy to enforce cuts and limits to care, we should be looking for ways to increase the number of insured Americans, including children, and improving access to health care.

Even worse, Tennessee is proposing to disproportionately threaten the health of children. As Figure 2 in the concept paper shows, children would represent a vast majority of those placed in harm’s way by Gov. Lee’s unique hybrid of a Medicaid block grant and per capita cap (i.e., the 62 percent of children in this chart and another percentage share of people with disabilities subjected to the caps).

Arbitrary Medicaid caps or limits are particularly threatening for children with special health care needs, including infants, kids with cancer, asthma, heart conditions, and children in foster care, because the cost of their care and coverage would, by definition, exceed the average per capita limit included in the proposal for the federal share.

To meet the arbitrary caps, Tennessee and its Medicaid managed care plans would have an incentive to impose bureaucratic barriers to care, paperwork denials, limits and other forms of rationing for Tennessee’s vulnerable and fragile children.

This is particularly disturbing because Tennessee has already demonstrated a desire and ability to use such mechanisms to limit care and services to children. Just a few months ago, a study by the Tennessean found that the state had used a number of mechanisms to limit and ration coverage for its children over the past few years. The investigative report explains:

At least 220,000 Tennessee children were cut, or were slated to be cut, from state health insurance in recent years in an unwieldy TennCare system that was dependent on hard-copy forms and postal mail. . . The majority of these kids likely lost their coverage because of late, incomplete or unreturned eligibility forms.

In an analysis titled The Return of Churn: State Paperwork Barriers Caused More than 1.5 Million People to Lose Their Medicaid Coverage in 2018, Families USA’sEliot Fishman and Emmet Ruff found:

In 2016, [Tennessee] began making manual eligibility redeterminations after still not having an online system to do so. Because redeterminations could not be processed online, the state mailed a 98-page renewal packet to beneficiaries to renew their eligibility. The Tennessee Justice Center, an advocacy organization that has helped Tennesseans and their families to renew their TennCare eligibility, reports that in many cases the state mailed renewal packets to the wrong addresses, and as a result, beneficiaries lost coverage for failing to return renewal packets that they never received. In other cases, the state never processed beneficiaries’ renewal packets despite receiving them (as documented by beneficiaries’ proof of receipt).

Also contrary to federal law, the state failed to screen children for eligibility under other Medicaid categories before disenrolling them, resulting in children losing coverage despite qualifying under another category. Additionally, because the state did not apply the same eligibility information to all members of the same family, parents and caregivers were required to submit separate packets for each of their children, and the state made separate eligibility determinations for each member of a family.

None of this is about striving to improve the health of children and families. At a budget hearing earlier this year, Tennessee State Sen. Jeff Yarbro pushed agency officials about how Tennessee had the highest decline in covered children across the country in 2018. Sen. Yarbro said:

This is utterly broken to the point of where it appears to be more by design than accident. You have to conclude that this is a management decision to trim the rolls or at least let them shrink by relying on people either not receiving, or not completing, the gargantuan applications.

Tennessee was rationing care to children through bureaucratic red tape.

Tennessee’s Proposed Arbitrary Medicaid Cap Targets Kids

Although Tennessee has finally revamped its eligibility process this year, it is disturbing that the state is creating new barriers to the health of children by proposing the vast majority of those that would be subjected to the newly proposed Medicaid caps would be kids [MK1] (Figure 2 above).

Under current law, the federal government and states have a shared partnership (65.21 percent federal and 34.79 percent state)to cover any increase in Medicaid’s costs due to either enrollment or inflation.

This would no longer be the case if Tennessee’s proposed Medicaid cap were approved. According to the proposal:

. . .the financing of Tennessee’s Medicaid program will no longer operate under the traditional Medicaid financing model. Instead of drawing down federal dollars based on a fixed percentage, the federal government will provide a block grant of federal funds to the state for the operation of its Medicaid program.

In short, federal funding would no longer be guaranteed to cover its full share of costs under the program.

Recognizing the potential for significant harm, the Governor specifically exempts most senior citizens (“expenditures on behalf of individuals who are enrolled in Medicare”), outpatient prescription drugs, and Tennessee’s own administrative expenses from the caps in his proposal. In other words, the health of children would be put at grave risk but not administrative costs and bureaucracy.

Consequently, under the draft proposal, federal funding would be allocated to the state in the first year in the form of a block grant and future federal contributions would be limited in the form of per capita payments above a base block grant amount.

According to the concept paper:

Once calculated, the block grant amount will be trended forward from 2018 to the first year of the demonstration using an inflation factor based on CBO projections for growth in Medicaid spending.

First, CBO is often way off in its projections and inflation rates often vary wildly from year-to-year, depending on a number of factors. For example, in the case of natural disasters or some public health crises, Tennessee’s Medicaid would find itself shortchanged at the very moment when it is in need of additional federal support.

Much like the Tennessee proposal, U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana proposed a Medicaid cap that was supported by President Donald Trump in his FY 2020 budget submission to do much the same but at an inflation rate that would be below the expected medical inflation rate. According to an analysis by Avalere Health, the Graham-Cassidy language would have cut Medicaid payments to children by an astounding 31 percent over a 10-year period.

Tennessee Proposes to End Its Future Commitment to Its Citizens

Even worse than the federal caps, Gov. Lee’s radical proposal also would end Tennessee’s commitment to its share of health costs of citizens covered by Medicaid to what it spends in fiscal year (FY) 2019. According to the concept paper:

. . .the state commits to maintenance of effort with regard to the non-federal share of TennCare funding based on state expenditures on TennCare during state Fiscal Year 2019, trended forward each year the block grant is in effect.

Limiting the state Medicaid contribution to just what was spent in FY 2019 would create significant shortfalls over time. This is particularly true in cases where enrollment and costs increase due to demographic changes, economic downturns, natural disasters, a public health crisis, the discovery of a medical breakthrough or cure, or medical inflation.

The state’s proposal to no longer pay its share of the costs of its citizens in the future is the most disturbing aspect of the proposed Medicaid waiver. Although it is bad enough that the federal government’s commitment or share to the health care costs of those in Medicaid would be arbitrary capped, even worse, Tennessee would no longer cover a dime of any additional future expenses.

This quickly becomes a significant problem since Tennessee currently pays for more than one-third (34.79 percent in FY 2020) of the costs of Medicaid coverage. Under Gov. Lee’s proposal, it is difficult to see how Medicaid would cover newly enrolled infants, foster children, children with cancer, people with disabilities, or people who would need Medicaid coverage in the wake of an economic downturn or natural disaster.

To address the subsequent shortfall, Tennessee assumes federal officials would be willing to give the state “flexibility” to use their “block grant” to:

  • Withhold certain medical benefits, such as mental health, dental coverage, or new treatments (Tennessee is asking to waive amount, scope, and duration benefit requirements and to limit access to Food and Drug Administration approved prescription drugs under current Medicaid law);
  • Slash payment rates to hospitals, clinics, doctors, dentists, and pharmacies; and,
  • Cut children, pregnant women, people with disabilities, or low-income senior citizens off of coverage.

Despite the strange allure to some state officials of the word “flexibility,” block grants and per capita caps do not come with some sort of magic wand. “Flexibility” does not make children, senior citizens and people with disabilities mysteriously less expensive to cover without significant cuts to benefits, services or provider payment rates.

This is one of many reasons Medicaid block grants are such terrible public policy.

Tennessee’s Proposal is Likely Not Legal

Tennessee’s proposal to cap both the federal and state payments in Medicaid would likely be found to be illegal if challenged in the courts. According to a Health Affairs analysis by Rachel Sachs and Nicole Huberfeld entitled “The Problematic Law and Policy of Medicaid Block Grants,” Medicaid law allows Section 1115 demonstration waivers “to allow states to experiment with certain aspects of the Medicaid program to improve beneficiary coverage or care.”

However, Tennessee’s waiver proposal does nothing to improve beneficiary coverage or care and it does nothing to further the intent and objectives of Medicaid law.

Moreover, as Sachs and Huberfeld explain:

Medicaid spells out federal payment within Section 1903, which states that the HHS secretary “shall pay to each State…the [federal match] of the total amount expended…as medical assistance under the State plan….” This language is not waivable under Section 1115, which explicitly permits waivers of Section 1902 but not Section 1903. (HHS can approve more spending than Section 1903 contemplates to match a state’s expansion of Medicaid coverage, but it cannot waive Section 1903.) As a result, HHS cannot cap the Medicaid funds it disburses to states, either per person or programmatically, because it must pay the federal match for the “total amount” of a state’s spending.

Nicholas Bagley confirms this point in a blog titled “Tennessee wants to block grant Medicaid. Is that legal?” for The Incidental Economist. He writes:

You can’t use section 1115 to waive section 1903. To the contrary, section 1903 is pointedly omitted from the list of statutory provisions that HHS is empowered to waive.

So you can’t use Medicaid waivers to change Medicaid’s financing structure. And that’s exactly what Tennessee is proposing to do.


Tennessee was once considered a national leader in health care policy. In 1994, Tennessee launched TennCare by using savings from the use of Medicaid managed care to expand health care coverage to the uninsured. Mandy Pelligrin of the nonpartisan Sycamore Institute explains, “This was considered the most expansive Medicaid eligibility in the country at the time.”

Unfortunately, rather than seeking innovative ways to expand and improve health coverage of its citizens, now Gov. Bill Lee and the Tennessee legislature are moving in the opposite direction and proposing an arbitrary cap on both the federal and state shares of Medicaid. This would lead to limits and the rationing of health care services for low-income children, some senior citizens, people with disabilities and adults.

Our elected officials should protect children rather than putting them in harm’s way. When it comes to policies that impact children, the “best interest of the child” should be the standard.

Unfortunately, placing arbitrary fiscal limits on the health of kids does nothing to improve their care. In fact, it threatens their health and well-being, and for that reason, should be soundly rejected.

Children deserve much better.

Census says: Tax credits, SNAP and other benefit programs work. So let’s make them stronger.

| September 20, 2019 |

The U.S. Census Bureau released annual data on child poverty in the United States on September 10 that shows benefit programs are particularly effective at reducing poverty for children.

The U.S. Census Bureau calculates the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) as an alternate measure to the Official Poverty Measure. Unlike the Official Poverty Measure, which uses an income threshold solely based on the cost of food, the SPM incorporates the cost of food, clothing, shelter and utilities. It also adjusts for family size and geographic differences in housing costs. The SPM further considers cash income (including child support) and non-cash benefits, subtracts taxes (or adds tax credits), work expenses, out-of-pocket medical expenses, and child support paid to another household.

When taking all of these factors into account, the SPM rate for children in 2018 was 13.7 percent, compared to 16.2 percent when using the Official Poverty Measure. The nearly two-point drop in poverty illustrates that benefit programs are particularly effective for children and must not only be protected, but strengthened so they can reach many more children still living in poverty.

This year’s data shows that tax credits continue to be the strongest anti-poverty tool we have. Together, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit lifted 4.7 million children out of poverty in 2018.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) continued to be another powerful anti-poverty program for children in 2018. SNAP provides low-income households with monthly funds intended for grocery purchases, and while benefits under the program are modest (corresponding to roughly $1.40 per person per meal), they play a critical role in freeing up household resources and helping struggling families place food on the table. Given that more than 18 million children participate in SNAP—representing 44 percent of its beneficiaries—it is unsurprising that it kept almost 1.4 million children from falling into poverty last year. This data further underscores the importance of protecting children from proposed cuts to SNAP.

How Do These Programs Lift Children Out of Poverty?

A recent landmark study from the National Academy of Sciences, A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty, confirms that the negative outcomes associated with child poverty directly result from a lack of income.

Studies show that when parents and guardians receive cash assistance, they use it to provide resources for their children such as nutritious food, stable housing and educational supports that improve children’s healthy development. Increased income also relieves parental stress, giving them increased time and mental energy for their children.

More resources in a household in the short-term also improves children’s outcomes for the long-term. Studies show that children in households that received an increase in income through programs such as EITC or SNAP were healthier and earned more as adults, thereby helping to break the cycle of generational poverty.

A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty puts forward a set of policy and program options that, if implemented together, could cut our national child poverty rate in half within a decade.  Within these options, they find that establishing a $3,000 annual child allowance would have the biggest impact of any single policy in reducing child poverty, and by itself could cut deep child poverty (children in households with incomes below half of the poverty line) in half within a decade. It would also address racial and ethnic disparities by having the biggest impact in reducing poverty for Black and Hispanic children.

The bottom line is that money matters to reducing child poverty. We could do more to reduce child poverty by:

  1. Establishing a national child poverty target. Child poverty is a solvable problem if there is the political will to take action. Establishing a national child poverty target – similar to ones in the United KingdomCanada and New Zealand as well as here in the United States – would be the first step toward holding lawmakers accountable to making child poverty a priority and implementing solutions. Bicameral legislation introduced in past sessions of Congress established a target and we hope to see this legislation reintroduced soon.
  • Strengthening family tax credits. Currently 26 million children are unable to benefit from the full Child Tax Credit, and the 2017 tax law also widened income and racial disparities and neglected to expand the EITC and the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC). Congress should alter that course and ensure that any legislation to extend tax breaks for businesses also include improvements for low-wage families with children. 
  • Creating a national child allowance – The American Family Act (S.690/H.R. 1560), the Working Families Tax Relief Act (S.1138/H.R. 3157), and the Economic Mobility Act (H.R, 3300) would establish child allowance programs.  If signed into law, these proposals would implement one of the most effective policy changes to reduce child poverty identified in the NASEM study and currently adopted by numerous industrialized nations, such as Canada, Australia and nearly every European country  — already proving the success of cash-transfer programs to struggling families and children.

For more recommendations on how to reduce child poverty in America, see First Focus Campaign for Children’s Proactive Kids Agenda for the 116th Congress and Children’s Budget 2019. For more information on the newly released Census data, see: Alarming 2018 Census Data Spurs New Call for National Poverty Targets.

Shortchanging Our Children Harms the Nation

| September 16, 2019 |

The future of any society, by definition, depends on its ability to boost the health and well-being of the next generation. When we devote the resources necessary to support families and improve the services and programs that help all children be healthy, get a good education, and contribute to our nation’s future success, we all benefit.

Instead, we are shortchanging and failing our children. The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell refers to the current situation as a “War on Children” and the Post’s Petula Dvorak writes how, on issue after issue, the country is “failing its children.”

The Post’s Colby Itkowitz adds:

The mistreatment or disregard of American and foreign children at the hands of the United States is not a new problem. . . When issues from guns to immigration to health care to foreign affairs are viewed through the lens of how they affect children, it becomes clear the young are an afterthought when it comes to public policy.

This is underscored by what is happening to children in the federal budget. In the Children’s Budget 2019 report we released at the National Press Club last week, we found that the share of all federal spending dedicated to children dropped from 7.98 percent in fiscal year (FY) 2015 to 7.21 percent in FY 2019 — a 9.7 percent reduction over the period.

Even worse, President Trump’s proposed FY 2020 budget would cause the share of federal spending on children to drop to just 6.45 percent — a real cut of $20 billion. His budget submission would eliminate 44 separate children’s programs and make cuts to far more.

One might speculate that the president’s budget attempts to reduce the deficit, but it is important to highlight that children are disproportionately targeted for the cuts. As our report highlights, Trump’s budget targets children for 17 percent of the cuts in domestic discretionary spending.

Moreover, we can also be pretty certain that the President’s proposed cuts on the mandatory side on the budget would also look to target children with greater harm. For example, according to the President’s FY 2020 budget narrative, the Administration supports “enactment of legislation modeled after the Graham-Cassidy-Heller-Johnson bill proposed in September 2017.”

That proposal would have established a Medicaid per capita cap and subjected children to much lower inflation rates and much higher cuts on a per capita cap basis. In fact, according to analysis by Avalere Health, Medicaid spending on children would have been cut by 31 percent compared to less than 2 percent for senior citizens.

In Children’s Budget 2019, we also estimate that interest on the federal deficit began exceeding all federal spending on children combined this year.

Under current law, things will only get worse over the next decade. The Urban Institute’s Kids’ Share 2018 report projects that the downward trend will continue well into the future. As the author’s explain:

Children’s programs are projected to receive just 1 cent of every dollar of the projected increase in federal spending over the next decade, compared to 61cents for [the adult portion of] Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicaid, and 29 cents for interest on the debt.

These facts all point to a growing crisis for children and our nation’s future. Unless dramatic changes are made to the federal budget process, and we begin to prioritize children in our society:

1) Investments in children will be a rapidly declining share of all federal spending;

2) The burden of the fast growing federal debt will be passed on to our children by adults who have favored cutting taxes and increasing defense spending over investment in children and reducing the federal deficit;

3) The rapidly growing share of Medicare and Social Security costs due to the retirement of Baby Boomers will be assumed by the next generation;

4) At some point, fiscal austerity measures will fall disproportionately upon our children and their children.

Economist Eugene Steuerle believes that the budget crisis is already upon us. In a Washington Post Op-Ed, Steuerle writes:

The costs are being incurred now; they’re not waiting for some fiscal blowup. The evidence is abundant: Education spending and other federal investments in children, as a share of gross domestic product, will fall by about one-eighth in about a decade. Programs that might promote economic mobility and opportunity for everyone make up an ever-smaller portion of the federal budget. Support for working families declines. College students get stuck with huge debts. Anyone visiting from abroad finds our airports and other transportation infrastructure second-rate. . . . These stories all relate to the decline of fiscal democracy.

In other words, even if Congress finds political will to make much needed investments in children, doing so will be difficult because the federal budget process is heavily stacked against kids.

A recent Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) report, Budgeting for the Next Generation: Does the Budget Process Prioritize Children?, finds that the budget process systemically disadvantages and shortchanges our nation’s children.

CRFB’s analysis concludes:

  • While much of spending on adults is mandatory, spending on children is disproportionately discretionary and thus must be reviewed and renewed with other appropriations.
  • Spending on children is disproportionately temporary, and it requires far more regular reauthorization and appropriation than programs for adults.
  • Spending on adults is rarely limited while spending on children is often capped, constraining what can be spent for most major children’s programs.
  • Most programs for children lack built-in growth, leading spending on children to erode relative to spending on adults and relative to the economy.
  • Programs for children lack dedicated revenue and thus lack the political advantage and protection of programs for seniors that enjoy this benefit.
  • Growing spending on adults is burdening younger generations by driving up debt and thus reducing future income and increasing costs.

As CRFB explains, “These features of the current budget process are increasingly leading spending on children to be crowded out, as the burden we place on children rises.”

Advocates seeking increased investments in children face serious political and structural barriers. As Children’s Budget 2019 and the reports by the Urban Institute and CRFB illustrate, children are not faring well — not at all.

However, according to a study entitled “A Unified Welfare Analysis of Government Policies” by Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser and published by Harvard’s Opportunity Insights, found:

  • Direct investments in the health and education of low-income children have historically yielded the highest returns.
  • Opportunities for high-return investments have persisted throughout childhood.
  • Many direct investments in low-income children’s health and education have paid for themselves.

Hendren concludes:

The policies that have historically invested in kids tend to be the ones that have the biggest bang for the buck. Because, oftentimes when you put in a dollar when a kid is young, it can have impact that then pays us back when those kids grow up.

Money matters. As Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) points out:

The targeted investments and interventions we make now will make a lifetime of difference for the children they reach.

In an effort to achieve better investments and outcomes for children, more than 80 organizations have come together across all policy areas to form the Children’s Budget Coalition. Through this Coalition, child advocates have committed to work together to raise attention as to how the federal budget is shortchanging our children, both overall and within individual programs.

First Focus Campaign for Children, Save the Children Action Network, and other partners are also supportive of S. 1780, the “Focus on Children Act,” by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and S. 1776, the “Children’s Budget Act,” by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ).

These two bills would direct the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), respectively, to provide reports to Congress on spending levels related to annual appropriations bills and the President’s budget with respect to spending on children.

The status quo of shortchanging our children is unacceptable. It leaves children worse off in both the short- and long-term. We can and must do better by our children, who are the future of our country.

We Know We Can Cut Child Poverty in Half, So Why Aren’t We?

| September 10, 2019 |

Today, the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual national data on poverty in America and it paints the picture that we know all too well: Our child poverty rate remains stubbornly high despite the fact that we have the solutions to address it.

The Numbers

According to the Census Bureau’s Official Poverty Measure (OPM), 16.2 percent of children (11.9 million) were living in poverty in 2018.  (The official poverty line for a family of four with two children is $25,465 a year.)

The new figure represents a 1.2 percent decrease from 2017.  While we are encouraged to see this small decrease in the child poverty rate, we know that children still have a 54.4 percent higher chance of living in poverty than adults and that the United States continues to have a significantly higher rate of child poverty than most of our peer countries.

And due to the continual racism and discrimination ingrained in our country’s institutions, children of color continue to experience rates of poverty three times that of white children.  29.5 percent of Black children and 23.7 percent of Hispanic children were living in poverty in 2018 compared to 8.9 percent of white children.

The figures also show a modest decrease in children living in deep poverty, with 6.9 percent of children living in deep poverty in 2018 ($12,732 a year for a family of four with two children).  This number remains particularly worrisome, since households living in deep poverty lack the income to meet their children’s basic needs. 

Despite the vulnerability of children living in households of deep poverty, they often lack access to assistance. Many anti-poverty programs are contingent on a household having some income, yet families in deep poverty have little to no earnings due to barriers such as disability, substance abuse, mental health or other complex and persistent issues that prevent them from working full time or at all.

The good news is that we are making more progress than the OPM indicates. The Supplemental Poverty Measure, also released today, tells us that when we take anti-poverty programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Child Tax Credit (CTC), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), housing assistance and other programs into account (as well as other factors) the child poverty rate drops to 13.7 percent.

We Know How To End Child Poverty

However, no matter what measure you use to indicate child poverty in the United States, our rate remains high – an inexcusable trend considering that findings of a landmark study released earlier this year from the nonpartisan National Academy of Sciences show that we know how to make progress. A Roadmap to Reducing Child Povertyputs forward a set of policy and program changes that, if implemented, would cut our national child poverty rate in half within a decade. While the study committee finds that no single policy can cut our child poverty rate in half within a decade, establishing a $3,000 annual child allowance would have the biggest impact by far and would cut our deep child poverty rate in half within a decade. Structural improvements and funding increases to the EITC, SNAP and housing vouchers would also make a serious dent.

The study committee also finds that implementing these changes are cost-effective. Poverty costs our country upwards of $1 trillion a year due to reduced economic activity and output, yet cutting our child poverty rate in half within a decade would cost less than $110 billion a year.

Yet our country is going in the opposite direction. Today First Focus on Children released our annual Children’s Budget Book, which reports that the share of spending on children in the United States declined to an all-time low of just 7.21% in FY2019.

And recently, we have also seen a slew of harmful regulations from the Trump Administration that if implemented, would further increase our child poverty rate by restricting access to critical resources for millions of children.

For this reason, First Focus on Children, with our partners at the U.S. Child Poverty Action Group, launched the End Child Poverty campaign earlier this year and is calling upon the United States to establish a national target to cut our child poverty rate in half within a decade. Setting a target would provide advocates, the media and other stakeholders with a tool to hold our lawmakers accountable for reducing child poverty.  We have seen evidence of the effectiveness of targets in the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand as well as here in the United States. Bicameral legislation introduced in past sessions of Congress established a target and we hope to see this legislation reintroduced soon.

Please join us in this effort! You can start by participating in our upcoming Twitterstorm on Tuesday, September 24th at 2pm EST using the hashtag #EndChildPoverty. Please also attend our webinar on Wednesday, September 25th at 3pm EST. For additional details, sign-up for our listserv here and follow us on Twitter at @CPAG_USA.

For more information:

End Child Poverty Press Statement

Top Takeaways from A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty

Implementing a Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty