When lawmakers slash budgets, low-income children are some of the people most likely to get hurt, a recent study found.
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Quick, when budget cuts target programs like Medicare, who suffers the most?
It's not a trick question. When lawmakers look to cut funding for programs that are specifically set up to assist the most needy in society—children, the elderly, the disabled—it's exactly those people who feel the effects first and longest. That apocryphal statement, according to "How Targeted Are Federal Expenditures on Children?" A joint study by the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution released earlier this year, is exactly what the empirical evidence proves.
Among the hardest hit by budget cuts are the nation's children, under age 18, living in low-income families. The national rate of child poverty increased to 44 percent in 2010, up two points from the previous year, the report states. It defines families in poverty as having incomes lower than 200 percent of the federal poverty rate (about $34,000 for a family of three).
In 2009, poor children received the bulk of several types of aid targeted toward children from the federal government. They received an estimated "99 percent of housing expenditures, 98 percent of expenditures on nutrition, 97 percent of health expenditures and 94 percent of expenditures on social services," the report stated. In contrast, the federal government's aid for education, the report found, helped children from poor and higher-income households about equally, with 55 percent going to low-income children.
Nationally, 55 percent of aid for low-income children comes from the federal government, with the balance coming from the states.
"How the government spends money, and who benefits, reveals a nation's priorities," the report states. It outlines the reasons why a society would focus on children in poverty to target aid: Humanitarian purposes (children can't take care of themselves) rank at the top. The report points to research regarding the prevalence of hunger (aka in government-speak "food insecurity," which basically means people don't know where their next meal is coming from) in America's poor people. Poor children are much more likely to experience hunger than those who aren't poor (23 percent vs. 4 percent). Not insignificantly, the report also touches on the argument that "early investment in disadvantaged children may lead to better outcomes later in life, in turn benefiting society as a whole."
Most of the federal government's spending on low-income children, 68 percent, is "in kind" expenditures: housing, nutrition and education. Only 8 cents of every dollar is in cash. In contrast, children in wealthier families receive most of their benefits through nonrefundable tax expenditures (60 percent) and more cash, about 12 cents of every benefit dollar comes through Social Security and veteran's benefits.
So how do budget cuts fit in? "Low-income children are particularly vulnerable to cuts in discretionary spending because it is more heavily targeted to low-income populations—and unlike some mandatory spending and tax subsidies, discretionary spending has no built-in growth over time as the economy expands," the report states. "With more than two-fifths of children living in low-income families, the effects of reduced spending could have long-term consequences for the social and economic health of this country."
The website Think Progress put it more succinctly in "How Federal Budget Cuts Could Devastate Low-Income Children," a story about the report.
"Millions of children have been kept out of extreme poverty by programs like food stamps, and the overall poverty rates would have been twice as high in 2010 without the social safety net," the site stated. "Surely, the opposite effect would occur with any cuts to welfare, social security, Medicaid or the other programs that keep these kids afloat."