If Budgets Reflect Values, Do We Value Our Kids?

Child Rights
Federal Budget
Poverty & Family Economics

Quoting his father, Vice President Joe Biden has said, “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”

At our inception 10 years ago, First Focus (originally called the Children’s Investment Project) was purposed with the mission of making children and families a greater priority in federal budget and policy decisions.

One major challenge that First Focus and other child advocates have faced in trying to hold policymakers accountable to that objective is that politicians have often pointed to an increase in a single budget item for children as a measure of their “strong commitment” to children, while simultaneously slashing funding for our youngest citizens in a number of other areas.

Therefore, with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF), the Urban Institute publishes Kids’ Share, an annual report that includes both a long-term historical look-back and 10-year projections as to how children fare in the federal budget.

And, with support from the Packard Foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, the Kellogg Foundation, and AECF, First Focus has created a companion report entitled Children’s Budget, which provides a five-year, line-by-line analysis of the funded dedicated to children by Congress and in every President’s budget.

Despite the annual accolades that politicians have self-proclaimed about their work on behalf of children, our first book, Children’s Budget 2008, found:

  • Over the period between 2004–2008, only one penny of every new federal dollar spent on non-defense discretionary spending went to children; and,
  • The share of federal spending dedicated to children had declined by 10 percent over [four] years.

Over time, the children’s community has increasingly used both Children’s Budget and Kids’ Share to tell the real story about how policymakers either value or neglect children through the federal budget. The share of federal funding has moved up-and-down over the years. For example, when the federal government responded to the recession and increased support for children through passage of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), the federal share of spending dedicated to children peaked in 2010 at 8.45 percent. According to our analysis:

Within the $787 billion ARRA package, almost $144 billion went to children’s programs. This investment accounted for 18 percent of ARRA spending, a significant increase for America’s children.

Subsequently, through the imposition of sequestration and budget caps, Congress slashed children’s programs disproportionately in response to growing federal budget deficits and the share dropped to just 7.78 percent in 2012.

Fortunately, the Murray-Ryan budget deal temporarily lifted the sequestration caps, so the share bounced back to 8.25 percent in 2014, but it is important to note that overall spending for kids still dropped between 2010 and 2014 due to the simultaneous decline in ARRA funding. As Children’s Budget 2014 explains, “From 2010 to 2014, the total federal investment in children decreased by 13.6 percent, in real terms.”

Since then, overall spending on children has risen largely due to mandatory spending increases, but again, at a slower rate than overall federal spending. Thus, the share of overall federal spending on kids has dropped. The children’s share is projected to be just 7.83 percent this year, according to our latest publication Children’s Budget 2016.

In short, since the high in 2010, the federal share of spending on children has dropped by 7.3 percent over the last six years, although the year-by-year numbers have been up-and-down.

We are not valuing or prioritizing children in the federal budget. In fact, between 2011 and 2016, children’s programs received just 2.1 percent of all new federal spending.

However, that increase was unique to mandatory spending on programs like Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Other spending areas, such as education, were cut on an inflation-adjusted basis by 17.3 percent between 2011 and 2016. That number would be even worse if the figures were also adjusted for the increase in students.

The downward trend in the federal share, unfortunately, is not expected to rebound under the current budget framework. According to Kids’ Share, unless major changes are made to the federal budget, children are projected to receive just 2 percent of all new federal spending over the next 10 years. In addition, interest on the debt will exceed all federal spending on children in 2018.

Likewise, the Committee for Education Funding, of which we are a member, has found that the most recent budget proposed by House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price would maintain caps for non-discretionary domestic (NDD) spending and, thereby, “slash funding for education and other critical NDD programs by $877 billion, or 18.6 percent, between FY 2018 and FY 2026.”

Unlike in the past, when politicians could issue a press release touting an increase in one or two federal programs for children, we now have the bigger budget picture for children and it shows that Congress generally does not make children a priority.

With the budget documents produced by the Urban Institute, the Committee for Education Funding, and First Focus, child advocates (including those in the Children’s Budget Coalition) have the information they need to advocate for changes to the federal budget in support of the next generation.

Unfortunately, at a recent congressional briefing focused on an important report entitled Overlooked But Not Forgotten: Social Security Lifts Millions More Children Out of Poverty by the Center for Global Policy Solutions that highlighted the importance of Social Security to children, the discussion turned negative when an advocate for senior citizens attacked the “children’s budget” analysis because they argued it fails to take into account the importance of programs like Social Security, and thereby, creates “intergenerational warfare.”

The claim would be worthy of “Four Pinocchios” from Washington Post’s Fact Checker, as Social Security is clearly highlighted in full color in Children’s Budget 2016 (see, for example, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) on page 133 and both the Disability Insurance Trust Fund and Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund on page 132 in Children’s Budget 2016.

Children’s Budget 2016 also highlights that one major bright spot in terms of investments in children are due to the growth in a few critically important intergenerational programs. As the report explains on page 11:

. . .most of the increases came from automatic growth in programs that are not exclusive to children such as Medicaid, Social Security Disability Insurance, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

So, before criticizing child advocates and our work, it would be wise to actually read what we write and find out what we actually do rather than building a straw man to attack.

For example, if they did, they might find that the child advocates who authored the Children’s Budget had submitted testimony to Congress in support of Social Security. They might find that the organization had supported legislation protection individuals who receive SSI and Medicaid to participate in potentially life-saving clinical trials without endangering their eligibility for both programs. And, they might have learned child advocates had expressed opposition to asset limits in public programs like SSI, SNAP, and Medicaid . . . which again, are intergenerational programs.

Since most children can’t speak up for themselves, they need adults to be their advocates, and we should never shy away from doing so. For First Focus, creating a “children’s budget” has been instrumental in helping us identify the trends, measuring progress and declines, and thereby, holding our policymakers more accountable for how they prioritize and truly value children in the federal budget.

And yet, some advocates for senior citizens have pushed for expansions of Social Security to fight poverty while simultaneously dismissing the need for comparable advocacy for children, despite the fact children are 64 percent more likely to live in poverty than adults.

They have argued that children are supported because “senior citizens strongly support their grandchildren.” Nobody disputes grandparents love their grandkids.

But, that does not translate into support for children in federal, state, and local budgets. As New York Times’s columnist Charles M. Blow said in his keynote speech at First Focus’s Children’s Budget Summit on July 7th, “Investing in America’s future means investing in other people’s prodigy.”

For this to happen, adults would have to make children a budget priority.

Unfortunately, in an American Viewpoint poll in May 2014, only 0.3 percent of voters over the age of 60 mentioned children’s issues like education, early childhood, and child health as a top priority. In sharp contrast, 33 percent of voters over the age of 60 said seniors’ issues like Social Security and Medicare were most important to them in their vote for Congress. Put another way, older voters were 100 times more likely to identify seniors’ issues rather than children’s issues as a top priority.

Since children can’t vote and seniors do, this presents an enormous challenge for children. But, it also poses a potential problem for baby boomers themselves. As William H. Frey, demographer at the Brookings Institution and author of the Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking Americawrites:

Today, the nation’s growing racially diverse younger population depends upon the country’s mostly white baby boomers and seniors for financial and political support of educational investments, a social safety net and health care. But not too far down the road, the latter group will need the support of the former, as those young people enter a labor force that will finance Social Security and Medicare.

Frey adds:

. . .this youth-driven diversity surge is also creating a “cultural generation gap” between the diverse youth population and the growing, older still predominately white population. This gap is reflected in negative attitudes among many older whites toward immigration, new minority growth, and big government programs that cater to the real economic and educational needs of America’s younger, more diverse population.

The gap is not a result of racist attitudes per se. It reflects the social distance between minority youth and an older population that does not feel a personal connection with young adults and children who are not “their” children and grandchildren.

The problem isn’t that senior citizens don’t care about kids. It is an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” problem.

Polling data and research clearly indicates that the American public will express deep concern about the future of our nation’s children and make children a top concern when they are specifically asked. Voters, including senior citizens, will even choose to protect children over other major issues such as the federal deficit, defense spending, and even programs for seniors.

If we have any hope of reversing the downward trend that children have experienced in federal investments, it requires that we make sure that children are not “out-of-mind” when policymakers are making policy and budget decisions.

It is one of the many reasons why we support “community schools,” as they build support across generations. As Congressman Mike Honda and California State Senator Carol Liu wrote for First Focus’s Big Ideas book:

Community schools coordinate community resources using schools as hubs in support of student success and strengthened families. Community schools focus on equity by aligning the resources of an entire community to ensure student success. Educators, families, community volunteers, health and social service agencies, businesses, government, non-profits and others committed to children and families are changing outcomes by establishing deep working relationships and collaborations. They focus on developing new operational structures to ensure that budgets, services and programs are aligned to the school plan to meet the needs of students and their families.

It is why First Focus Campaign for Children has created The Children’s Network, which is a collaboration of individuals and organizations dedicated to children and families and making them the priority in federal and state policy and budget decisions

It is why we support the One Question Campaign, which is an effort to get policymakers to ask themselves one simple question when making decisions: “Is it good for the children?”

And, it is one of the important things that the “children’s budget” does. Our book attempts to ask and answer some important questions:

  • “What about the children?”
  • “What is prioritized and valued in the budget?”
  • “Is it good for the children?”

If we value our kids and our nation’s future, these are the fundamental budget and policy questions that our nation’s political leaders must address. And in asking those questions and attempting to keep children “in their sight,” the children’s advocacy community should not apologize. If you take any objective look at the data, the fact is that our generation is failing to value our children and we must do better.


Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on July 19, 2016.

 
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