Do you know what is going to happen to federal spending for children in the next 10 years? Like me, you probably don’t. But it is important to understand how spending on adults affects spending on children. If we don’t know how money is being allocated, we can’t decide whether the “pie” of federal spending is being cut up fairly.
It turns out that spending on children is projected to go down in the next decade. At the same time, spending to pay interest on our national debt and on Medicare, Social Security, and the portion of Medicaid that goes to adults will continue to rise.
In a report published recently by the Society for Research on Child Development, Heather Hahn of the Urban Institute shows how and why spending on children (benefits that go directly to children or to families depending on whether and how many children they have) will most likely decrease by 2024.
She shows that this decrease is very different from years past. From 1960 to 2004, spending on children grew from 3% of all federal expenditures to 10%. By comparison, spending on adults grew from 11 to 43%.
But by 2024, while spending on adults is projected to increase to 47% of all federal expenditures, spending on children is going to go down to 8%. So we will spend more than 5 times on adults than children. This is not proportional to the population, by the way. In the U.S., there are about 3 ½ times more adults than children.
The spending decrease does not reflect a decrease in the population of children either. The percentage of the population who are under 19 (the definition of a child) will fall by about 1% in this period but the percentage of the economy that goes to federal expenditures on children will fall by about 20%.
There will be declines across all categories of spending for children, except health. So funding for housing, early education and care, social services and training, and K-12 education will all show declines over 25%.
There are 3 things that will drive the decreases in spending on children. First, growth in spending on Medicare, Social Security and the portion of Medicaid that goes to adults is mandated to increase over time. Second, there are not currently any plans to increase federal revenues to cover that mandated growth and, in fact, mandated sequestration will be taking place in many areas. Third, interest payments on the national debt will continue to rise. So spending on adults and on interest payments on the federal debt will essentially eat away at the money available to children.
This is a potentially bleak forecast for children in the United States. We know that children who are fed, housed, and given a quality education are more likely to be well-educated, healthy, and productive members of society as adults. And they will be the adults who will not only raise the next generation of children but also take care of the older generation. So we all need them to be well-prepared.
There is a glimmer of hope in the report. These projections are based on the way things are now. They cannot take into account any changes in policies and laws that may be made between now and 2024. So it’s a little like Ebeneezer Scrooge asking the ghost of Christmas Future whether his future is etched in stone. It’s not. We, too, could make some changes and see a brighter tomorrow.
And that is why it is so important for all of us to understand what might happen to federal spending for children. We need to know so that we can decide whether this is how we want the “federal pie” to be divided up. To decide whether we are comfortable giving 5 times more to adults than to children. To determine what, if anything, might be done about spending on adults that would still protect the most vulnerable populations. And to be informed so that we can actively make choices about how we want our tomorrows to look.
The full report “Federal Expenditures on Children: What Budget Policy Means for Children’s Policy” can be found on the SRCD Social Policy report page.