Ongoing budget process offers lawmakers an opportunity to reverse trend and invest in kids
Christopher Towner (Former Staff)Federal Budget
Our Children’s Budget 2020 – released this fall during our annual Children’s Budget Summit – underscores an alarming trend: the share of federal spending on children continues to decline despite continued need. Fortunately for lawmakers, this trend could be reversed in the ongoing appropriations process by making proactive investments in children’s programs for the rest of Fiscal Year (FY) 2021.
In FY 2020, which ended on September 30, 2020, the federal government committed just 7.48% of its resources to children’s needs. That share has steadily decreased over the last few years, falling 9 percent since FY 2016. (An important caveat is that these figures do not include federal relief for COVID-19, but we do know that the vast majority of that relief thus far has not been spent on children.)
The fact that the share continues to drop is, in and of itself, concerning; that it does so while overall federal spending climbs higher – and specifically discretionary spending, which is decided annually by Congress and the President via appropriations – highlights not only that children are being ignored, but that lawmakers are actively choosing not to invest in their futures. We’re now almost two months into FY 2021, and Congress chose to continue funding levels from FY 2020 – meaning the trend will continue until and unless lawmakers choose to reverse it when the continuing resolution (CR) currently funding the government expires in December.
In 2019, Congress passed and the President signed the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019, which raised statutory caps on discretionary spending for FY 2020 and 2021 that were established by the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 and reduced by “sequestration” – an across-the-board cut to discretionary spending that neither political party wanted but nevertheless incurred because of Congress’s failure to agree to deficit reduction targets. As a result of the BCA and the sequester, discretionary spending has been inadequate for addressing any of the country’s needs, let alone children’s needs, for almost ten years. The Bipartisan Budget Act was a welcome development that should have allowed lawmakers to make the critical investments in children that they had ignored for the past decade.
Yet despite the fact that more than 80 percent of children’s programs are discretionary and discretionary spending was set to grow by $66 billion, children got just $3.5 billion of that increase in the annual appropriations process. Though Congress increased nondefense discretionary spending – which accounts for half of annual appropriations that benefit domestic programs – the children’s share of that spending went down.
Were it not for the fact that mandatory spending grows automatically from year to year at a faster rate than prices, children’s spending would have seen a cut on an inflation-adjusted basis. The bottom line: lawmakers are choosing not to invest in children and instead allocate a smaller and smaller slice to kids annually.
The FY 2021 appropriations process was supposed to be completed by October 1 but has been repeatedly delayed by the election and COVID-19 relief, with the Senate just introducing its bills for the current fiscal year last week (several months behind schedule). The CR currently funding the government will expire on December 11, at which point Congress and the President must either come to an agreement on full appropriations for FY 2021 or kick the can down the road with another CR. It is our sincere hope that they take advantage of the lame-duck period by focusing on children’s needs and passing, at the very least, the appropriations bills that children rely on most, like the Labor-HHS-Education bill, the Transportation-HUD bill, and the Agriculture bill – with funding that moves towards investing in kids rather than ignoring them.
Failure to invest in kids will have consequences over the coming weeks, months, and years. Even prior to the COVID-19 crisis, children’s programs were neglected year after year. This neglect has resulted in a shocking statistic: we now spend more on interest payments on the $27 trillion national debt than we do on children’s programs. It’s time to reverse that trend and commit to kids for FY 2021 and beyond.
Past does not have to be prologue; policymakers can come together during the upcoming appropriations negotiations to choose to commit to kids and invest in their development and well-being. It is our hope that lawmakers will grasp the desperate need to increase, not decrease, the share of federal spending towards children – both at home and abroad.