The President’s Budget & Kids

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 By Sue Badeau 

In February President George W. Bush unveiled his budget "blueprint" for Fiscal Year  2002.  The 175-page document presents his fiscal plans and priorities for the upcoming year. How do children and youth fare?

Good question. It can't be answered yet, because too many important details are missing. 

While it is possible that this budget-lite is short on details because it's a first offering from a new administration, many believe that the vagueness is an attempt to push through the president's tax-cut plan before revealing the true budgetary implications. 

"The Bush budget avoids details because the details would show that the numbers don't add up," says ranking Senate Budget Committee member Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). The House Budget Committee's majority website cries foul, proclaiming, "Yes, there is a budget after all," and noting that the tax cut would take effect in Fiscal Year 2001, for which there is already a budget.  However, the tax cut has fiscal implications for at least 10 years.

Advocates, policy wonks and politicians are either deeply troubled about what this budget may have in store for kids, or optimistic about the possibilities.  "Frankly, it's a budget of lost opportunities," says Wendell Primus, director of income security at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, and a former Democratic House staffer.

A veteran Capitol Hill staffer says that many on the Hill worry that anything not mentioned in the "blueprint" will be cut - and a lot has not been mentioned.  He adds, "I am also worried that the large tax cut will mean no money to help poor kids, and that we might see TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] reductions next year."

Others are cautiously optimistic. Laurel Stein of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law notes that the budget makes "no real mention of mental health," yet she hopes that, in light of his "New Freedom Initiative" (the president's plans for disability policy), Bush will continue the trend started under Clinton to increase the mental health block grant. And Miriam Rollin, public policy director at the National Network for Youth, says "pieces" of the budget "include several positive, though modest, initiatives that would benefit youth and families." She points to increased funding for the Safe and Stable Families Act as a good sign.

Conservative advocates are delighted with the lack of detail and hope this signals a smaller role for government in the lives of children and their families. Lisa De Pasquale, program director for the Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute, asks, "Does the public believe, as does the Children's Defense Fund, that our children are a collective resource to be reared and nurtured by the state? Or are they best raised by their parents, who, unencumbered by a hefty tax burden, would be better able than the state to provide for their children?"

Education Funding

A large part of what is known about the president's budget as it relates to kids comes from his education agenda. "The largest increase of any department will be for the Department of Education (DoE)," Bush proclaimed just prior to releasing his blueprint. Bush says he is boosting DoE by more than 11 percent, yet this claim has stirred controversy, and critics say it is based on fuzzy math.

"This is not an 11 percent increase by any ordinary yardstick," says Rep. John Stark (D-S.C.). Because it includes $2 billion already in the current budget (under a formula called "advance funding"), the real increase is 5.7 percent, which Richard Kogan of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes is the slowest rate of increase in the last four years. 

Among the education details that are provided:  $900 million (up from $300 million) for reading programs, $150 million (up from $25 million) for charter schools, $25 million (up from $9 million) for character education programs. The blueprint does not detail funding levels for the largest K-12 programs, such as Title I and Special Education. Levels for other programs, such as vocational education, education technology, and Safe and Drug-Free schools, remain a mystery. 

The DoE plan also calls for $400 in savings by cutting "one-time" programs (often referred to as earmarks), and emphasizes state flexibility and accountability.  Education Secretary Rod Paige extols this plan, saying, "I am specifically trying to discourage the growth of categorical funding. ... This is part of the problem, not part of the solution."

Yet there will be fights over this as well. Senate Education Committee member Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) counters, "I don't think we should use flexibility as an excuse for getting rid of good programs."

Faith and Fathers

Continuing a trend that started in the last two years, "Responsible Fatherhood" receives a big boost in this budget:  $64 million for FY 2002 and $315 million over five years. Much of this money is for competitive grants to community and faith-based organizations that help unemployed or low-income fathers, and that promote marriage. In addition to the financial investment, Bush nominated Wade Horn, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, to be assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The only portion of the blueprint that focuses heavily on children and youth - referring to children in foster care, youth in the juvenile justice system, poor children and  teen pregnancy - is the chapter on "compassion," which provides a few glimmers of  how Bush's faith-based initiatives would focus on youth. 

In addition to creating a "compassion capital fund" offering $67 million to charitable organizations, the plan allows non-itemizing taxpayers to take a deduction for charitable giving and allows states to use TANF funds to offset losses they incur by offering tax credits for charitable giving. 

Other opportunities for compassion include $15 million for a new "Veterans Mission for Youth" program which seeks to connect retired military personnel with youth as mentors. The Corporation for National Service also gets a new "Silver Scholarship fund" which allows senior citizens to earn scholarships for their grandchildren by doing community service in a program similar to AmeriCorps. 

The real question for youth workers and advocates is, how much of the new charitable giving will benefit at-risk and vulnerable young people, as compared to the amounts that are targeted to the arts, environment or other charitable endeavors?

Justice and Housing

The Department of Justice, which houses the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Programs, is slated to be funded at the same level as this year.  However, the budget document refers to cuts that will be made as part of a "redirecting" effort.  Most cuts will come from grant programs.  It is unclear which grants will be affected. A new $9 million Justice program, Project Sentry, is proposed to identify, prosecute and punish juvenile gun offenders. Another new program is called the "Parent Drug Corps." 

The little that is known about child welfare in this budget includes a $200 million increase in the Safe and Stable Families program, and some totally new money: $33 million for maternity group homes, and $233 million designated for education vouchers for youth aging out of foster care. Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute,  bemoans the fact that while the education budget also includes reform proposals, the HHS budget does not. "We need to see major reforms in child protective services and juvenile courts," he says.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is slated for a 6.7 percent increase, yet Bush also describes plans to reduce funding for public housing maintenance, rural housing and drug elimination programs.

The Tax Cut

"The thing that really concerns me is the tax cuts," says Cleveland child welfare advocate Maureen Heffernan. "I have been working in child welfare for 24 years now and can never once remember a time when there was enough money to really do the right thing for kids and families. I would be more than happy to see my tax dollar in the surplus go to meeting these human needs as opposed to a tax cut."

While it is possible that this budget-lite is short on details because it's a first offering from a new administration, many believe that the vagueness is an attempt to push through the president's tax-cut plan before revealing the true budgetary implications. 

U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill says of the tax cut, "I like to refer to it as the Goldilocks tax relief plan: not too big, not too small, just right."  While the Goldilocks image seems child-friendly, many analysts say the tax cuts will be more like scary bears in the woods to needy children.

The element of the tax plan most touted as a benefit for children is the doubling of the child tax credit from $500 to $1,000.  Georgia State University Professor of Economics Dr. Mark Thornton believes this alone will result in "fewer children falling into the social safety net and more money in family budgets to address the needs of children."  Yet analysis of this provision conducted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that 24 million children will not benefit at all from the doubled child tax credit. This includes more than half of all Hispanic and African-American children. The Center's Kogan remarks, "The slogan 'Leave no child behind' simply does not apply to his tax plan."

House Democrats circulated a report saying that to make room for the tax cuts, Bush's budget would cut purchasing power by an average of 6.6 percent in all government programs except for education, defense and medical research.  Thornton believes this is good news. "Tax cuts stimulate economic growth," he says. "Today's child care specialists are simply overrun by the problems they face, but if the root causes of poverty can be fixed in this fashion, I am sure that public and private organizations could more than adequately address the special problems of disadvantaged children."

Sue Badeau can be reached at