Spending on Children Is Up, but Mandatory Programs Devour Increases

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Total federal spending on children's programs increased 10.5 percent this year over last year, but the growth is due to mandatory increases in federal assistance programs that had to expand to meet growing needs.

And the trend over the past five years shows that today's federal spending on children's programs - 9.2 percent of all "non-defense" spending - still isn't what it was five years ago when it began to gradually decline from 10.5 percent of all such spending.

The findings are in a new report - the Children's Budget 2009 - that was released Wednesday at a Capitol Hill news conference by First Focus, an advocacy group pushing to get the federal government to create its own "children's budget" to enable policy-makers, advocates and others to get a firmer handle on how much federal money is being put into the 180 programs that First Focus says benefit children and youths.

The group may get its wish.

This week U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), who attended and spoke at the First Focus event, plans to reintroduce the "Children's Budget Act," which would require a "detailed account of all the federal funding for children and children's programs, including a detailed breakdown of spending by agency, department and initiative." The proposed act died during the last Congressional session.

"Federal funding streams are complex. Sometimes you can understand them, sometimes you can't," Davis said, "so much so that determining how much we invest in children is difficult even for experienced policy analysts."

Davis said he was encouraged by findings in the Children's Budget 2009 report that found there would be a 3.6 increase in federal spending for fiscal 2010 under President Barack Obama's proposed budget.

"When I see figures like those, I know that there is hope and that there is possibility that we will ultimately put all of our resources in the best places," said Davis, a former schoolteacher, guidance counselor and assistant principal. "Then we're actually putting our money where our hopes and dreams are."

But the trend over the past five years doesn't offer much reason to be optimistic, said First Focus president Bruce Lesley.

"The bottom line is that over a five-year period, the story has not been a good one for kids," Lesley said.

And the Children's Budget 2009 report had a less upbeat take than Davis did on the president's proposed 2010 budget.

"President Obama's first budget request would, in some ways, continue the trends of the past five years," the report states.

Although the president's budget proposal includes an overall increase in spending on children by a "real" 3.6 percent from current levels, that increase, too, is due to "mandatory spending growth" on programs that legally are required to expand to meet growing needs, such as the federal food stamp program, according to the report.

Though the report said discretionary federal spending has also risen, "it's not enough to make up for lost ground," said Julia Isaacs, Child & Family Policy Fellow at the Brookings Institution. And when adjusted for inflation, President Obama's budget would bring about a 0.3 percent decrease in spending on children's programs, even though it is technically a 2.7 percent increase over current spending, according to the report.

The Children's Budget report examines federal spending trends over the past five years in child welfare (down 8.9 percent); education (down 6 percent); health (up 18.8 percent); housing (up 20.8 percent); income support (up 3.9 percent); nutrition (up 27.8 percent); safety (up 3.5 percent) and youth training (down 10.6) percent.

For more information or to view the online companion to Children's Budget 2009, visit http://www.ChildrensBudget.org/