Michelle Dallafior, Senior Vice President of Budget and Tax Policy, First Focus
Last week, First Focus hosted the 2018 Children’s Budget Summit to introduce the 11th annual release of its signature publication, Children’s Budget 2018, which captures recent spending trends across nearly 200 federal programs benefitting children. With this data, Children’s Budget 2018 analyzes the share of federal spending on children, investments across nine areas of child wellbeing, and the president’s fiscal year (FY) 2019 budget proposal, which, if enacted, would eliminate 41 children’s programs. This comprehensive analysis shows where the federal government is investing wisely in our children--and where it is shortchanging them.
First Focus was pleased to present the event’s sponsor, Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), on behalf our sister organization, First Focus Campaign for Children, with a 2017 Champion for Children award recognizing her as one of the top U.S. Senators who consistently and effectively advocates for children and families. Her record is outstanding, including her votes in support of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and improvements in the Child Tax Credit and her bipartisan work as co-chair of the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth with Senator Grassley (R-IA). In her inspiring remarks, Senator Stabenow highlighted her refusal to harm children and families as she leads Congressional negotiations over the 2018 Farm Bill. As a Michigander, I am thrilled that First Focus honored her awesome, thoughtful, and tireless advocacy for our nation’s children.
First Focus President Bruce Lesley opened the Summit with a detailed presentation about how the federal budget process shortchanges children, calling Children’s Budget 2018 a “good news/bad news story.” The good news is that the share of total federal spending on children rose by a real 1.10 percent from FY 2017, thanks to increased investments stemming from the passage of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 (BBA, P.L. 115-123). The bad news is that this one-year improvement failed to overcome the long-term decline in the share of spending on children (a real 1.7 percent decrease) since FY 2014, and will keep shrinking, according to the Urban Institute. Meanwhile, interest payment on the national debt is projected to exceed federal spending on Children by 2020! These funding challenges will only intensify as our deficit balloons and revenues decrease significantly due to 2017’s $2 trillion tax bill, which largely benefited wealthy individuals and corporations over children in poverty.
Bruce also highlighted the fact that the current budget process “rigs” the system against children and called for “inter-generational equity” in federal spending. As the Center for Responsible Federal Budget points out, spending on children is disproportionately discretionary, temporary, and capped and lacks built-in growth like Social Security and Medicare, which are mandatory and have successfully lifted many seniors out of poverty. This disadvantage, not surprisingly, leads to regular debates about funding cuts and reauthorization for important children’s programs like the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
These trends must change so that all of our children—17.5 percent of whom currently live in poverty—have equal opportunity to thrive and succeed. Bruce recommended structural solutions such as the creation of a children’s budget, a child poverty reduction target, and an independent commissioner for children. In addition, we could identify a dedicated revenue source for some children’s programs, convert CHIP to a permanent, mandatory program, reform TANF, raise the budget caps, and adopt the concept of inter-generational equity – so that both our seniors and kids win.
After this budget process discussion, I was honored to moderate a panel with incredible experts starting with Lynn Caroly, Ph.D., from the RAND Corporation, who also served as a key member of the 2018 National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine study “Transforming the Financing of Early Care and Education.” She gave an overview of the insufficiency of existing federal investments in our early care and education system and infrastructure, the need to incentivize high quality care, and different recommendations in the report.
Up next, Natasha Slesnick, Ph.D., a professor of Human Development and Family Science in the Department of Human Sciences at The Ohio State University and a licensed clinical psychologist, shared her research focusing on interventions for substance using homeless youth, and substance using mothers and their children. She underscored the need for prevention services and to continue to identify hidden populations of youth, such as those experiencing homelessness, who may have the highest opioid use rates.
Our third esteemed panelist was the Rev. Fr. Douglas Greenway, who has served as President and CEO for the National WIC Association since 1990. Rev. Greenway spotlighted the need for funding to expand the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infant and Children’s capacity for community health integration, breast-feeding peer counseling, and other important services—as well as protect complimentary programs like SNAP and Medicaid from harmful policy changes.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha gave an inspiring keynote address, reminding the audience that “it is our responsibility no matter where we are, to fight for our children.” Though Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s own story centers around the lead crisis in her city of Flint, Michigan, she took care to remind us that everywhere in America, poverty and trauma are injustices that are harming the lives of our children and require multifaceted interventions.
She especially stressed the need to put kids first in spending and policy decisions: “Flint is what happens when the people charged with keeping us safe care more about money and power than our children.” But her message was also one of hope.
“Flint is also the story of people coming together and resisting for our kids,” Dr. Hanna-Attisha said, citing the city’s strides in investing in evidence-based prevention programs such as trauma-informed care, universal early childhood education, home visiting, and more. She hopes Flint can serve as a model for other communities around the nation seeking to create better futures for their children.
Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s message gets to the heart of why First Focus founded the Children’s Budget Coalition nearly 10 years ago. The coalition is comprised of more than 70 children’s advocacy organizations with priorities across a wide range of issues, such as health, education, nutrition, the welfare system, juvenile justice, and more.
In a unified voice, this broad coalition of advocates urges Congress to prioritize children in federal policy and budget decisions, and serves as a resource for our partners, lawmakers and their staff, and the public.
Thanks to dedication, determination, and collaboration, the Coalition successfully urged Congress to raise the budget caps for FY 2018 and FY 2019. But our work continues. The budget cap will drop dramatically by $55 billion in FY 2020, and we must push for another bipartisan agreement that builds on the priorities reflected in the BBA to avoid drastic cuts in programs and services that support our children and families. We invite you to join us in this fight. As Dr. Hanna-Attisha put it, “children everywhere are counting on you.”