President Obama has vowed to make smart new national investments in children a federal budget priority. And no wonder since, according to UNICEF, the U.S. ranks a shameful 20th among 21 rich democracies in child well-being.
The good news: Thanks to bi-partisan support from Maine’s small but farsighted Congressional delegation, the president’s goal is already achieving early success. Maine’s delegation unanimously voted to expand child health care and to pass the stimulus bill. These two measures will help Maine children and families get through these difficult economic times — and help the Legislature with its budget woes. Because of these votes by Maine’s delegation: 11,600 uninsured Maine children will receive health care; 46,000 children will benefit from the child tax credit provisions of the legislation; $49 million in Title I education funding will go to disadvan-taged children; and 185,000 residents will receive $114 million in food stamps.
But as helpful as these measures are for children and families, the economy’s severe downturn requires yet additional shifts in federal spending priorities toward children and families. The new budget proposed by the president does just that. It would further cut taxes for millions by expanding the Child Tax Credit, double Early Head Start, increase the Child Care and Development Block Grant and finance reforms in health care leading to insurance coverage for every American.
Congress soon will have many opportunities to help the administration re-order our national spending priorities — essential if hard-won gains in children’s health and education are to be preserved.
Currently, at least 46 states face budget shortfalls directly related to global conditions not of their doing. Many economists predict state fiscal problems could worsen through 2011 with cumulative state budget deficits of more than $300 billion. At least 26 states may reduce access to health care. Half the states already are cutting or proposing cuts to K-12 and early education, and as many as 30 states have implemented cuts to public universities. There is little doubt that children and youth programs are in jeopardy as the social safety net is further shredded.
In Maine, the gap between General Fund spending demands and anticipated revenue for the two-year cycle beginning July 1 is a whopping $965 million. On top of that, the state Legislature recently approved over $76 million in budget cuts. Past recessions suggest that children’s programs may be disproportionately affected by this economic downturn. What will this mean for the more than 46,000 Maine children who live in poverty? The 20,000 without health insurance? The 9,000 reported abused or neglected? The 53,000 alone every day after school? It means that these children, already challenged, could be joined by thousands of other children — unless new money is found.
And for now, the principal source of new spending is the federal government. Without additional federal assistance to serve as a bridge while the nation’s and Maine’s economies recover, gains for children will slide. That is short-sighted because the returns on investments in children are high: a more productive work force, improved competitiveness in a global economy, a reduction in social ills and a greater ability to care for an aging population.
Currently, the vast majority of spending on children’s programs in Maine already comes from Washington. Much of it is channeled through the governor’s office and the Legislature. Federal support for Maine’s children — nutrition programs, health care, income security, social services, education — will total nearly $1 billion during the state’s two-year budget cycle. But it isn’t enough.
Maine’s congressional delegation should get behind the administration’s spending priorities because there is no other practical way the state can maintain vital children’s programs on its own. Only the federal government has the authority and tax base to close the enormous state budget deficits that are exploding across the nation.
Michael Petit is a former commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. He is now president of the Every Child Matters Education Fund.