Debt negotiations overlook children’s needs, voters’ wishes

As the deadline for raising the debt ceiling nears, talks between the White House and Congress revolve around the kinds of choices both parties can live with. It’s not just tax exemptions or spending cuts that are at issue; lawmakers are speaking, at least indirectly, about the future of America’s kids.

Vivian and Catherine at International Community Health Services, Seattle

And when they’re talking about cutting services, what they’re saying is profoundly out of touch – not only with the needs of children, but with the will of voters.

There is a grain of truth to deficit hawks’ alarms about federal spending. The federal government has spent more on children since the recession began, due to important programs like Medicaid and food stamps that are designed to ramp up in hard times. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) has been creating jobs and sustaining important public programs for more than two years, which helps support our kids.

Yet as a share of the entire budget, federal spending on kids is in decline, according to two new reports. The findings reveal that spending on kids has shrunk by one-fifth since 1960 and will continue to shrink, constituting just 8 percent of the overall budget by 2020.

Moreover, as ARRA funding expires across the country in coming months, the drop will be precipitous. Families who are getting hit hard by the recession will no longer have the stimulus bill to soften the impact.

The decline would continue even without the breathtaking program cuts House majority leaders desire. And it runs contrary to public opinion. A recent poll by the bipartisan children’s advocacy group First Focus revealed that voters mainly want a balanced approach to hard times – the kind one party to these negotiations has been advocating. Given a raft of programs to choose from, they overwhelmingly opt to protect services for children, and they prefer to close tax loopholes, raise taxes and end corporate subsidies rather than cut programs for people. If presented with the idea of a balanced approach, nearly 3 in 4 voters would raise taxes on those earning more than $1 million a year.

These programs – like Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), Medicaid, Head Start, and Social Security – are investing public money in the health of families. There are profound payoffs to economic security, early learning and health care for kids – and incredible harm when lawmakers fail to recognize these opportunities.

As children lead a multiracial transformation of American society, such investments are more and more instrumental to closing the achievement gap that prevents an ever greater number of the next generation from reaching their full potential.

At the core of the American Dream is the idea that you can make it if you try. Programs for kids in education, food security and health care give families a floor to stand on as they build a better life for their kids. As the debt ceiling deadline draws near, the resolution of this debate will say much about the health of that dream, and our commitment to a stronger America.

Photo: "Kids are counting on you" sign held by Victoria and Catherine, Seattle, 2009. From our Flickr page.

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