Federal Budget Freezes Youth Programs

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For those who love budget slides, actuarial tables and the phrase “fiscal year,” February was your month. Not only did President Bush drop his 2008 five-year budget plan on Congress’ doorstep – where it pretty much landed with a thud – he also signed a catchall spending resolution to keep most federal agencies running for the rest of the fiscal year that began last Oct. 1. (Chart.)

The belated $463.5 billion fiscal 2007 legislation rescinded unspent funds and reduced legislative line items – earmarks – freeing up about $10 billion for other uses. With few exceptions, however, youth programs remained at 2006 funding levels.

Even that looked better than some of Bush’s recommendations for 2008, which many advocates said were insufficient to address unmet needs in education, health, child welfare, job training and juvenile justice. (See related story.)

“The funding really is frozen in most of the areas we follow,” said Miriam Rollin, vice president of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a group of law enforcement and victims’ rights leaders who argue the best way to reduce crime is to invest in prevention programs. “You’re eroding, and you’re not meeting the vast amount of unmet need.”

Others, however, gave the new budget proposal high marks for trying to control federal spending.

The president’s request is just the opening salvo in the annual appropriations ritual; Congress will shape the final budget. Here’s a roundup of the key youth issues:

Department of Education

Some of that extra $10 billion in 2007 money was tapped to boost ED funding for the Pell grant program by $615.4 million, which translates into a maximum of $4,310 for each of these need-based scholarships. This could be a rare area of agreement between Bush and the Democratic congressional majority. The president wants an even greater boost, to $4,600 per grant, in 2008.

No additional funding was provided for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CLC) program, which remains at $981 million. “It wasn’t a surprise,” said Erika Argersinger, policy director for the Afterschool Alliance, an advocacy organization. “It was disappointing, because we feel like we have seen growing support among policy-makers for after school.”

Bush didn’t seek an increase for 2008 either, even though the program’s authorization level of $2.5 billion is more than double his $981 million request. “For ’08, we’re going to be working to get increases in 21st Century,” Argersinger said. She said that fully funded, the program would serve an additional 1.5 million kids.

Health and Human Services

Short- and long-term funding for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) is expected to dominate HHS budget discussions this year.

The program faces a $745 million shortfall in 2007, which would affect kids’ health care coverage in 14 states, according to Edwin Park, senior health policy analyst at the liberal-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). Georgia, facing a more than $130 million shortfall, recently announced an enrollment freeze.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) sent a letter last month asking Bush to include the $745 million as part of his expected $100 billion war-time supplemental funding request this year. A bipartisan array of “strange bedfellows” has coalesced in support of “gains in kids’ coverage,” Park said.

But long-term financing of the program is a thornier issue. Bush’s five-year request for $4.8 billion in additional SCHIP funds is a fraction of what Park and other experts say is the $12 billion minimum needed to maintain current SCHIP enrollment levels over the next five years.

Meanwhile, the conservative Heritage Foundation praised the president’s budget for reining in health care entitlement spending and projecting the elimination of the deficit by 2012. Nina Owcharenko, senior policy analyst for health care at the foundation, wrote in a February report that Bush’s SCHIP proposal is “fiscally prudent,” would refocus the program on low-income uninsured children from families that are below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, and would target dollars to states with populations most in need.

Bush’s proposals to eliminate the $630 million Community Services Block Grant and trim the Social Services Block Grant from $1.7 billion to $1.2 billion aren’t expected to go over well on Capitol Hill, predicted Wade Horn, HHS assistant secretary for children and families.

As head of the Administration for Children and Families, Horn oversees at least 65 programs that serve vulnerable youth and families. Seeing the glass as half full, he pointed to the budget’s request of more funds for abstinence education, services to protect unaccompanied children of illegal immigrants, money to speed interstate adoption of foster children and grants to expand home-based nurse visitation. But, he conceded, “it’s a very difficult budgetary environment.”

Head Start got a $103.7 million increase, nudging its total to $6.9 billion this year.

Department of Labor

The Youthbuild program, having completed a move from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to DOL, is still struggling to regain the 23 percent funding cut lost in the transition, said Dorothy Stoneman, president of YouthBuild USA, a nonprofit training and support organization. The 2007 budget and 2008 request of $50 million each year represent level funding for this youth job skills program – $15 million below the 2004 level.

Stoneman said two dozen of the 226 federally funded Youthbuild programs could close this year. As it is, about 14,000 kids who applied last year were turned away, she said.

“Level funding reflects, on the one hand, the approval of the program by the administration,” Stoneman said, noting that it’s a “compliment,” because few discretionary grant programs for low-income communities are being expanded. “Being level-funded by anyone is still a tragic loss of opportunity” to serve disconnected youth, she said.

Re-emerging elsewhere in the president’s DOL request were the $3.4 billion Career Advancement Accounts (CAAs), which would collapse individual adult and youth job skills and training line items into state block grants. Rachel Gragg, federal policy director at the Washington-based The Workforce Alliance, doesn’t expect Congress to suddenly take a liking to the accounts. Bush floated the idea in his 2007 budget request, but it didn’t make it into work force investment legislation passed by the previous Republican-controlled Congress.

The president requested a cut of more than $100 million in youth job training, also disappointing Gragg. “We feel funding should be increasing,” she said.

National Service

What bothers Gene Sofer, a consultant to youth-serving nonprofits, including Voices for National Service, is that Bush’s rhetoric in praise of national service doesn’t match “continuing budget cuts” to the Corporation for National and Community Service programs. “We understand that we have our work cut out for us,” he said. “A lot of programs have been underfunded over the past several years, and all of them are … going to be anxious to catch up.”

Department of Justice

Given the years of White House-recommended cuts in federal juvenile justice and delinquency prevention programs, continued funding levels for 2007 – at around $340 million, the same as fiscal year 2006 – is “progress,” said Rollin of Fight Crime.

But while deficits will constrain the new leadership, status quo budgeting in 2008 won’t distinguish the new Congress from its predecessor, she said. The budget is a “prioritization document,” she said. “And so if there’s no new money to go into anything, that means you agree with all of the prior priorities.