Children’s Advocates Gear Up for Budget Deal

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Worried childWASHINGTON — As Congress returns next week and lawmakers are pressed to strike an end-of-year budget deal to fund the federal government, many children’s advocates are calling on them to protect programs that benefit children, including education, health care, child welfare and nutrition.

A coalition of more than a dozen organizations said in a recent letter that federal spending caps enacted several years ago have forced deep reductions in funding for children. They want Congress to ease those restrictions and devote more funding to children.

“Yes, the federal government has budget problems, but denying kids the help they need to grow and thrive is the wrong way to solve them,” said Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, an advocacy organization, in a statement.

First Focus spearheaded the letter from the “Children’s Budget Coalition,” which includes the American Federation of Teachers, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth and MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership.

The discussion about children’s programs is part of a much broader, contentious debate about how to reduce the federal budget deficit and set the nation’s spending priorities. In 2011, Congress passed the Budget Control Act, which set out a system of spending caps and mandatory across-the-board spending cuts, commonly known as sequestration.

In some cases, those requirements have cut spending on children’s programs. Spending on children decreased by 9.4 percent from 2011 to 2015, while overall spending dropped by 4 percent over the same period, according to a First Focus analysis.

[Related: After-school Advocates Lobby Legislators to Save 21st Century Program]

The spending requirements also make it difficult for state and local organizations to plan what kind of federal funding they will receive, advocates say.

Abbie Evans, director of government relations at MENTOR, said the spending rules haven’t yet affected the major federal grant program for mentoring. But local programs still feel very unsure about the future, making them less likely to expand their offerings.

“The last few years, the most common word I’ve heard is uncertainty,” she said.

There are many paths Congress could take on the way to a final deal this year as lawmakers and the Obama administration debate the value of the initial budget agreement in 2011 and how federal funding should be allocated.

The coalition said in the letter that at the very least, Congress should ease spending caps in equal measure for defense and nondefense discretionary spending. Many children’s programs fall into the latter category.

They also said the current caps already have forced tough decisions as lawmakers craft spending bills for the coming fiscal year, such as eliminating preschool development grants and programs to promote safe and drug-free schools and communities. There have been proposals the groups support, such as an increase in Head Start funding.

“While there have been some bright spots for children, the spending measures resulting from the budget caps have included troubling cuts, and even program eliminations, that could hinder the health and development of children,” the letter said.

Congress will not have long to act when lawmakers return from summer break. The new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1.

The fast timetable makes likely a continuing resolution, which would extend current funding levels as lawmakers wrangle over a final deal. The possibility makes advocates nervous because they don’t want to miss the chance for funding increases.

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