By Sue Badeau
President George Bush last month unveiled the details of his administration's first budget. Cabinet members held press conferences in locations designed to serve as the backdrop to reinforce the president's borrowed theme, "Leave No Child Behind." Witness Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson's event at the Eastern Branch of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington (D.C.):
"The bottom line is that this is a great budget for children and their parents," Thompson said. He did not mention that Boys & Girls Clubs will lose $60 million in federal money in this budget.
This budget, Bush claims, is a "new vision" for America, yet many wonder what kind of vision one needs in order to see it as being good for kids. The Children's Defense Fund calls the budget a "shell game."
The answer to the question of how children and youth fare is: It depends on which children. Those with working parents who earn enough to benefit from the tax cut might fare well. If the parents are not happy with their children's school, they can move to a better school with help from a federally financed voucher (funded at $175 million).
But will a $1,500 education voucher help a child in foster care? Will faith-based programs reach out to enough abused children to make up for more than $15 million cut from the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment discretionary grant fund?
The president's 1,296-page budget constantly reiterates three themes: faith, flexibility and families.
Every department budget reflects a theme that Bush played on the campaign trail and inserted into the budget itself: "In every instance where this administration sees a responsibility to help people, it will look to faith-based organizations, charities and community groups." New initiatives, such as a $67 million mentoring program for children of incarcerated parents and a $33 million Maternity Group Home program, are made available as "competitive grants to faith- and community-based groups." Specific budget line items bolster these efforts, such as the new $89 million "Compassion Capital Fund" to provide start-up capital and operating funds to charitable organizations that "emulate model social service programs." A new Office of Faith-Based and Community Programs in HHS gets $3 million.
Related themes of character and values are also included in special budget allotments. Abstinence education discretionary grants increase by $10 million (to $30 million). The education budget more than triples the $8 million program to support character education. And $64 million will be provided to faith- and community-based groups to "promote responsible fatherhood."
Dozens of programs are eliminated or "consolidated" into simplified funding streams - often referred to as "block grants" - with a goal of providing more flexibility to the states. "The administration believes that it is possible to achieve better results by reducing regulations ... and giving states and communities the flexibility to create their own solutions to problems," Bush argues. Each department's budget contains a line similar to this one in the Section 8 Housing voucher description: "Rather than targeting the vouchers to any specific purpose ... ." This comes in the context of eliminating special Section 8 set-asides to provide affordable housing for people with disabilities, including families caring for children with disabilities.
Flexibility can be good. "Without the flexibility of the Medicaid Home and Community Based Waivers," says Family Voices' National Policy Director Julie Beckett, "many children with special needs, including my daughter, would have grown up in institutions instead of in their own homes." Title IV-E waivers let states develop innovative approaches to meet the needs of foster children.
On the other hand, targeting funding is sometimes the only way to ensure that vulnerable people will receive appropriate services regardless of where they live. "It takes 98 percent of an SSI check to afford a one-bedroom apartment at HUD's 'fair market rates,'" notes Ann O'Hara, author of the Technical Assistance Collaborative's housing report, "Priced Out in 2000: The Crisis Continues."
"Without targeted Section 8 vouchers, many people, including children with disabilities, will be excluded from obtaining housing."
The challenge for states as they decide how to allocate these flexible funds is that in most instances the whole is less than the sum of its parts. For example, the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) was funded in 2001 at $146.7 million, and is budgeted for only $51.2 million in 2002. On top of that, other programs eliminated under Bush's budget are now "consolidated" into FIPSE, such as the "Demonstration Projects to Ensure Quality Higher Education for Students with Disabilities," which received $6 million in 2001. Bush's budget notes, "No funds are requested because these activities can be funded under FIPSE."
The president does use targeted funding for favored purposes. He takes money away from the already flexible Home Investment Partnership to create an "American Dream" program aimed at helping more families become homeowners - a move which the National Council of State Housing Agencies' Executive Director John McEvoy calls "an Indian-giver's mandate." Bush also takes $200 million from the flexible Child Care and Development Block Grant to create a new set-aside for after-school mentoring programs. Noting that both young children and school-age children need child care resources, the Children's Defense Fund calls this shift "robbing Peter to pay Paul."
Families and Fathers
Most of Bush's proposals said to benefit children are aimed at families, particularly tax-related proposals such as a tax cut, the increased dependent child tax credit, and a new credit for uninsured families to use toward health insurance. This is a strategy promoted by conservatives such as the Hoover Institute research fellow and Forbes magazine columnist Jennifer Roback Morse.
"I am a big believer in just giving the families the money, so they can do the jobs themselves that need to be done," Morse says. National Taxpayers Union's (NTU) vice-president Pete Sepp agrees: "Probably the best program to help at-risk youth would be to reduce taxes, which are the median-income family's single biggest expense - ahead of food, shelter and clothing combined." But, he adds, "Lower-income families are in a nearly precarious situation on taxes, and reducing payroll tax and excise tax rates for this category would be most helpful in allowing them to minimize the poverty factors that at least partially contribute to the plight of at-risk youth."
The budget does not include payroll tax cuts. The Democratic Policy Committee and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities say 12.2 million families will get no tax relief under Bush's proposals.
In addition to tax proposals, Bush's new legislative initiatives focus on families, particularly marriage promotion and fatherhood. "Our goal," he states in the budget, "is to promote responsible fatherhood, successful parenting and stronger marriage."
Infused with these three themes, there are winners and losers in several federal agencies that provide services to children and youth:
Most news accounts of the president's budget led with the fact that the Department of Education receives the most significant increases of any federal agency. Democrats cry foul, pointing out that over $2 billion of the increases Bush takes credit for were already approved by former President Bill Clinton.
Reading is the big winner: Bush triples funding for reading instruction by investing $900 million in his Reading First state grant program. Other early childhood programs, such as Even Start, are level-funded, and last year's Early Learning Opportunities Program, created by Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), is eliminated.
There is mixed news for higher education. Pell grants, the federal program which helps young people with college tuition, receive a $1 billion boost. A new program providing $60 million in vouchers for foster youth to use for college or other post-secondary educational opportunities is promising. The TRIO program, providing postsecondary outreach to "disadvantaged students," is increased from $730 million to $780 million, while GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) is reduced from $295 to $227 million. Other special financial aid programs, such as the Thurgood Marshall Legal Educational Opportunity Program, are dropped.
Many programs serving children often termed "at-risk," such as Migrant Education, Safe and Drug-Free Schools, 21st Century Community Learning Centers, and Education for Homeless Children and Youth are funded at the same levels this year as last - which, after accounting for inflation, represents a loss.
The biggest education budget battles have been about funding for Special Education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). While Bush made campaign promises to increase the federal share of funding for IDEA, his other initiatives and tax cuts left little room to fulfill these promises. This cost him the support of some Senate Republicans, such as Sen. James Jeffords (R-Vt.), who are holding out for greater increases in special education.
After education, the health budget receives the largest increase, although most is for research increases for the National Institutes of Health. While the budget adds $124 million to Community Health Center Funding, it cuts $125 million by eliminating the Community Access program, which provides care coordination and other important health support services. The Maternal and Child Health Program dips from $714 million to $709 million.
While family planning is funded at the same level as last year, abstinence discretionary grants increase by $10 million and a new "adoption awareness" fund of $10 million is added to the HHS budget to provide training about adoption for family planning staff. The president did not include funding for the Family Opportunity Act, legislation which would help children with special needs obtain health care through a buy-in to Medicaid.
Mental health services are funded at the same level as last year, and substance abuse programs receive a small boost. Bush proposes to extend treatment to 17,000 more people, and estimates are that 2.9 million people are in need of treatment. Other efforts to combat drugs have been level-funded, such as Safe and Drug Free Schools, or eliminated, such as a Housing and Urban Development program to reduce drug use in federally funded housing.
Programs which encourage home ownership, such as The American Dream Downpayment Fund ($200 million), are this year's winners. Housing opportunities for people with disabilities are the losers. Rental housing for low-income individuals and families is provided, largely, through Section 8 vouchers. In spite of the 79,000 new vouchers that were approved last year, long waiting lists persist. The new budget calls for only 34,000 new vouchers in 2002.
Legislation passed in 2000 added young people who are transitioning out of foster care as an eligible category under the Family Unification Program (FUP), which provides Section 8 vouchers to families whose children have been placed in, or are at risk of being placed in, foster care. FUP receives no new money under this budget.
The Department of Justice is funded at nearly the same level as this year. However, many programs that serve youth are being cut, including: Missing Children (down to $23 million from $27 million), the earmark for Boys & Girls Clubs ($60 million, eliminated), drug courts, (down to $50 million from $55 million), Juvenile Incentive Block Grants (down to $250 million from $257 million) and all programs under Title II, Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
In addition, the popular COPS (Community Oriented Policing) program is cut from over $1 billion to $885 million. New money is available for measures to catch and convict some offenders, such as $40 million to local police departments to "go after gun offenders"; $255 million for bulletproof vests and for "cracking down on" the production and distribution of methamphetamine and other drugs; and $180 million for schools to hire more cops.