Promises, Promises …

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By Sue Badeau

President Clinton released his eighth and final budget proposal last month, laying out a plan that would shape America's youth programs long after he leaves office.  His 89-minute State of the Union (SOTU) message a week earlier had laid out his plans step-by-step - 104 steps, that is.

The Cato Institute says that's the number of new or expanded programs Clinton offered in his SOTU, an average of 1.17 initiatives per minute. These proposals amount to $1.5 billion of new spending for every minute he spoke (in contrast to the maximum capacity of the U.S. Treasury to produce $1 billion in new currency each minute). Clinton's speech drew 120 rounds of applause from the Democrats in the audience; for Republicans, it was a good time for a long nap.

Should youth workers join in the applause? What can be said about a budget that proposes the biggest Head Start increase in history, yet slashes funds for mentoring and victims of child abuse? A budget that sends $7.5 million to America's Promise while snatching $17 million from the Family Violence program - reducing it to zero?

Remember: an election year budget serves not so much as an economic blueprint, but as lighter fluid tossed onto campaign debates. It provides the talking points around which discussions in halls of Congress and at kitchen tables will be framed. The budget proposals and the discussions that follow reveal what's "in" and what's "out" in Washington. The Senate, House and president are supposed to reach a final budget agreement by Sept. 30; they've cooperated so well in the past, remember, that in 1995 much of the federal government was shut down by a budget impasse.

This budget delivers some good news for kids, but much of it is offset by bad news - especially for troubled youth.           

Working Families: In

Poverty: Out

The most successful anti-poverty program in U.S. is the Earned Income Tax Credit. More families have been lifted out of poverty by this program than any other. The president's $23 billion proposed expansion of the credit is good for children: Families with three or more children, as well as  married, two-earner families (about 6.8 million working families all told) will benefit.

The budget contains other initiatives designed to help working families, including:

  • increased funding for low-income housing - $690 million for housing vouchers, many of which will help families move from "welfare to work;"
  • a food stamp-vehicle policy which will benefit 245,000 working families by allowing them to receive food stamps while still owning the vehicles that help them to continue to go to work;
  • an expansion of the Dependent Care Tax credit, making it refundable for the first time ever (nearly 2 million low-income families will benefit); and
  • a $1 increase in the minimum wage, giving a full-time, minimum-wage earner a $2000 annual raise.

Responsible Fathers: In

Deadbeat Dads: Out

Several initiatives are aimed at helping men become responsible fathers by putting them to work and connecting them with their children. The "Fathers Work/Families Win" proposal allocates $255 million to efforts such as job training and placement, and work supports such as transportation assistance for noncustodial dads. On the other side of the coin, the budget includes strong measures to increase child-support collections and to ensure that more of the funds collected actually go to children. Supporters say improved child support will help wean even more families off welfare dependency. After all, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families  is designed to be temporary, while fathers are meant to be permanent.

Health: In

Smoking: Out

The largest share of the new initiatives are health-related. The president's proposal to provide $76 billion over the next 10 years to allow states to cover the parents of the children who are currently eligible for Medicaid and CHIP could significantly reduce the number of uninsured Americans. Several other Medicaid expansions include:

  • restoring Medicaid to legal immigrant pregnant women and children;
  • giving states the option to provide Medicaid and CHIP coverage to youth ages 19-21; and
  • allowing homeless shelters, child care centers and other community agencies to determine "presumptive eligibility" for children. Under this plan, children obtain key health benefits while their official enrollment is still pending.

Other health initiatives include $100 million in demonstration grants to states to develop innovative approaches to treating asthma. Immunizations and HIV/AIDS programs get small boosts. Two new initiatives are designed to prevent and reduce youth smoking - by penalizing the tobacco industry for sales to minors, and through $106 million in resources to local communities to develop more smoking prevention programs.

The president proposed the full $140 million for the John Chafee Independent Living Program, and a $35 million supplement to bring the FY 2000 funding up to that level as well. This program allows states to provide health care, through Medicaid, to youth (18-21) aging out of foster care. On the other hand, adoption opportunities and adoption incentive grants remain "level funded" - that is, funded at the same level as FY 2000.

Education: In

Violence: Out

Next to health, education is the big winner in the budget proposal. The president has proposed the biggest Head Start increase in history ($1 billion). This culminates Clinton's effort since the start of his administration to enlarge Head Start. When he took office, Head Start covered fewer than three-quarters of a million children; this budget would bring him within 50,000 of his one million goal. But the chances of the Republican-controlled Congress going along with that largesse are about as good as the GOP endorsing Al Gore for president.

Other educational initiatives include an early learning fund ($3 billion over five years) and universal after-school programs. The hands-down winner in the latter category is the 21st Century Community Schools program, proposed at $1 billion dollars, a $547 million increase over this year. The GEAR-UP program (which helps high school students stay in school and take the right courses to meet college criteria) goes up 62 percent, to $325 million, while the TRIO program (which helps students prepare for, enroll in and stay in college) gets a hike of 12 percent, to $725 million

Still more educational monies go to increasing the "accountability fund" from $134 million to $250 million (an effort to turn around failing schools), and $120 million in new money targeted for a Small Schools Initiative, a concept pushed by Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.). Expect fights over the latter item. "It's not a federal obligation or a federal role," says Eric Hanushek, education adviser to presidential hopeful George W. Bush, while Department of Education Assistant Secretary Patricia McNeil contends that the "size of the learning environment" directly contributes to school success.

School violence remains a high-profile topic; Clinton's budget includes a $100 million increase for the Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiative, designed to help local communities create approaches to curbing youth violence. The budget also adds $280 million to a variety of gun enforcement efforts, and $70 million to double the "Brady background checks" for gun purchases.

But for all that firepower, a violence prevention model that the Children's Defense Fund calls effective and fiscally sound - the Title V Local Delinquency Prevention Program (administered by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, OJJDP) - remains level funded at $95 million.

Community Service: In

Drugs: Out

The president's budget gave a big boost to the Corporation for National Service: included are a $73 million increase to AmeriCorps, a new $5 million AmeriCorps Reserve initiative (modeled on the military reserves), and $7.5 million again for Points of Light. That latter figure sounded so good that the president wants to send the same amount to Gen. Colin  Powell's America's Promise - originally established as an effort that would not tap tax dollars.

Over in the Labor Department, Job Corps receives a small ($35 million) increase, and Youth Opportunities Grants rise by 50 percent, to $375 million. (These are competitive employment and training grants, targeted to out-of-school youth in high-poverty areas.) The Workforce Investment Act, which includes funding for youth summer jobs programs, increases by $21.5 million, and both Labor and Justice are funded for new programs designed to reintegrate youthful offenders into the community.

Last year President Clinton proposed $75 million for YouthBuild, which employs young people between 16-24 to build housing for the homeless, but Congress appropriated $42 million. Now Clinton again proposes $75 million, although its not clear whether he does so out of hope or stubbornness.

Substance abuse prevention and other drug programs are scattered throughout the budget - in the departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Justice. While the Mental Health and Substance Abuse block grants rise some, and a new $30 million initiative called the Targeted Mental Health Capacity Expansion Program is added, the budget chops OJJDPs drug reduction programs in half, from $20 million to $10 million.

"Dirty Kids": Out?

On one hand, the budget looks pretty good for kids. They get more funds for health care, education and supports for their working parents. But ...

For the most part, these are what some youth advocates call "clean kid's issues." What about the less popular "dirty kids issues": abused children, runaways, homeless youth?

Kathleen Strottman, a staffer for Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), points to the large share of the HHS discretionary spending that goes to, say, Head Start (53 percent) as compared to the minute morsel tossed to abused children (4 percent). Does Head Start get too much? "Not at all," she states, "it's just that the whole pie isn't big enough. Head Start is a great program. But if children are dead or traumatized by abuse, what difference does it make to teach them to read?"

Under the president's budget, nearly all programs for troubled and abused children have been level funded - or worse yet, cut:

      *Runaway and Homeless Youth -  level funded at $44 million.

      *Runaway Youth Transitional Living -  level funded at $20.7 million.

      *Child Abuse state grants -  level funded at $21 million.

      *Child Abuse Discretionary Grants -  level funded at $18 million.

      *Abandoned Infants assistance, Child Welfare Services, Child Welfare training -  all level funded.

      *Family Violence - cut from $17 million to zero.

      *Title XX Social Services Block grants -  level funded at $1.775 billion -  after a dizzying downward spiral for years. (From 1991 to 1994, this block grant was funded at $2.8 billion annually. This decline to $1.775 billion is 50 percent reduction in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1991. )

      *Community Based Resource Centers and Developmental Disabilities funding -  both level funded.

      *Money for missing children is down, while juvenile justice and delinquency prevention falls from $161 million to $136 million.

      *Gang-free Schools program -  down by 50 percent.

      *Mentoring - down from $15 million to $12 million.

      *Victims of Child Abuse - down.

      *High-Risk Youth Grants - down.

Here's where youth workers might want to trade applause for a different kind of noise. Perhaps some of the level-funding and budget cutting are pre-emptive strikes, anticipating Republican efforts to whack the Democrats' favorite programs. But at a time of national prosperity, unprecedented government surpluses and economic growth - at a time when the president proposes the largest budget in U.S. history - the nation's most vulnerable children and youth are tossed the smallest scraps.