5 Reasons Life Is Getting Better for America’s Children
Life and Leisure

5 Reasons Life Is Getting Better for America’s Children


In yet another manifestation of the generational divide in government resources, a recent study shows that total federal spending on children has remained relatively flat over the past four years and will get increasingly squeezed in the coming years as more and more funding is diverted to Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs for an aging population. 

A recent Urban Institute study found that federal expenditures on children in 2015 -- largely for Medicaid, nutrition programs and tax breaks for families -- totaled $471 billion, or roughly 10 percent of the overall budget. Budgetary pressures borne of the economic recovery and congressionally imposed budget caps have “squeezed the share of resources devoted to children,” according to the report, and the problem will only get worse in the coming decade. 

Related: How Children Got Lost in the Debate Over Social Security Reform 

“In the future, overall federal spending is projected to increase substantially, but virtually none of the additional funds will be directed towards children,” the report stated. “Thus, the shares of the economy and of the federal budget devoted to children are scheduled to decline. Almost all the projected growth in federal spending is committed to retirement and health spending on adults, and to interest on the debt.” 

The report was issued amid growing debate on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail over spending priorities and how best to address huge projected growth in the national debt. As federal spending continues to outstrip revenues and the Treasury is forced to step up its borrowing, payments on the $19.5 trillion gross national debt will soon exceed spending on all programs for children. That highlights the extent to which the federal budget “is being driven by past policy decisions rather than by current assessments of how best to invest in the future,” according to the report. 

The fate of children and young millennials under federal spending policies has been getting considerable attention recently, especially as lawmakers, policy experts and children’s advocacy groups observe anniversary welfare reform legislation enacted by a Republican-controlled Congress and the administration of Democratic president Bill Clinton.   

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, as it was called, provides states with grants to try to move poor and low income families off of traditional welfare assistance and encourage self-sufficiency. Over the years, there has been considerable academic research into the impact of TANF on children and their families – and the role it plays within the nation’s larger social safety net, according to Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at Brooking and former congressional aide who helped draft the welfare reform law. 

The University of Kentucky Center for Poverty Research and Brookings’ Center on Children and Families recently sponsored a series of panels on the effects of welfare reform on child well-being, marriage, work and poverty. 

Related: Trump and Clinton Square Off On Saving Social Security 

Haskins concluded that that despite the concerns of many Americans that the country is on the wrong track, “there is plenty to celebrate” at least as far as children are concerned. Citing new research by Janet Currie, a professor of economics at Princeton, Haskins touted “five pieces of good news about children” in a Brookings blog post this week. Here they are: 

  • Low infant mortality. Currie plumbed government data to study mortality rates for children up to 19 years of age throughout U.S. counties grouped by poverty rates. She discovered that from 1990 to 2010, “there were substantial reductions in mortality across all counties.” While white children had the lowest rate of mortality per 1,000 throughout that period, Currie found major declines for African Americans and the sharpest declines in the poorest counties. Therefore, even while serious gaps remain, Haskins wrote, the country is making important progress in “reducing inequality in infant and toddler mortality rates.”
  • Higher high school graduation rates. A high school diploma is widely considered the minimum requirement for finding work, and there has been considerable progress made on this front. The share of all young people 24 to 29 years of age with four years of high school rose from 85 percent in 1990 to 89 percent in 2010, according to Currie’s study. The increase was far more pronounced among Hispanic young people, who went from a graduation rate of 58 percent in 1990 to 70 percent in 2010.
  • Reduced smoking and alcohol use. Currie found a marked decrease in teen drinking and smoking over the past two decades, a highly positive sign in promoting better health. Among 12th graders, for example, the percentage of students reporting use of alcohol dropped from 70 percent to 60 percent between 1993 and 2015. Even more encouraging, drinking among 8th graders plummeted over that same period from roughly 45 percent to 20 percent.  

Related: Record Number of Americans Living With Parents and Grandparents 

  • Lower teenage birth rates. One of the more encouraging developments throughout this period was an historic decline in teen births. The birthrate for females ages 15 to 19 dropped from 59.9 per 1,000 in 1990 to just 26.5 per 1,000 in 2013. Among black teens, the decline in the birth rate was more pronounced, from 116.2 per 1,000 to just 39 per 1,000 during that same period. Since 1991, the overall teen birth rate declined by more than half. That means there are far fewer young women now who are being forced to drop out of school or seek government assistance in order to take care of their babies.
  • Wider health insurance coverage. Haskins says that by far, the most important improvement for young people – especially the poor and minorities – is the expanded availability of health insurance coverage. The combination of Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program enacted in 1997 fostered this increased coverage of children and pregnant women.