Fiscal problems falling on the shoulders of children

Published in The News Tribune, March 15, 2011

In theory, local, state and federal governments operate like layers on a cake, each making separate and distinct contributions to the overall cake.  The federal government defends us from foreign enemies, state governments build roads, and local governments quench fires.  In practice, governments are related in ways making the analogy of a marble cake more apt.  For instance each state administers a distinct unemployment insurance program, but federal law and tax dollars make this a state-federal partnership.

Despite complicated relationships among our governments, the fiscal problems that each government now faces is addressed without  considering the collective impact of all the budget cuts.   And so, almost no attention is being paid to how our collective responses to governments’ fiscal problems are disproportionately harming children.

Let’s start with federal policy.  For each dollar that the federal government spends on a child, it spends five on a retiree.  Expenditures on retirees – mostly Medicare and Social Security — are “entitlements” meaning the federal government is legally required to pay them.  Those to kids are “discretionary”, meaning they appear on the chopping block every year.  This year Congress plans to cut numerous discretionary programs that target kids — the program that provides food to women with young children, another that provides low income families with quality day care, and another that gives extra funds to schools attended by low income children are but three examples.  Entitlements, meanwhile, are largely being left untouched.

Unlike state and local governments, the federal government does not need to balance its budget.  Despite significant cuts to discretionary programs (such as those mentioned above), for the foreseeable future the federal government will continue to run deficits.  That means it continues to borrow.  Eventually the burden of paying for today’s deficits will fall on — today’s children.

Turning to state and local governments, it is here where most programs for youth are funded –education and health care being the most expensive.  Such programs are costly ones for state and local governments.  In Washington, almost one out of every two dollars spent by the state goes just to K-12 education.  While the cost of providing for retirees places a burden on federal finances, in times of shortfall the federal government can always borrow.  State and local governments can’t borrow.  Instead, cuts have to be made.  Consequently, low income families across the nation are losing access to health care, kids are being put in larger classes, and after-school programs are shutting down.

So the federal government addresses its fiscal problems by cutting discretionary funding, protecting entitlements, and increasing the nation’s debt.  State and local governments cut social and educational programs that serve kids.   Taken together, children are shouldering more than their fair share of the governments’ fiscal problems.

And perversely, it is just this group that is most in need of being protected.  In Washington, nearly one in six kids lives in dire poverty – a rate higher than we’ve seen in a long time.  Seven percent of low income kids in our state lack access to health care. Almost half of all children nationwide live in households with inadequate or unstable housing arrangements; and one in five is in a household unable to provide adequate food.

One might be tempted to identify federal entitlements as the problem here.  But the real problem is that the current overall structure of our governments and their respective responsibilities leave kids with little ability to compete for resources.  It’s not necessarily that we need to reduce entitlements; but extending them to cover youth – a group as deserving of government protection as are our elderly – would allow greater balance is setting our funding priorities.  At a minimum, the federal government should ensure that all kids have guaranteed access to health care and quality preschools.  Such guarantees would move kids to the bargaining table over federal resources, rather than giving them whatever (if anything) is left over.  Especially given the future costs that we are currently passing off to today’s youth, we owe our kids such guarantees.