The federal budget deficit ballooned to nearly $1 trillion in 2019. The dizzying figure announced Friday by the U.S. Treasury has received lots of press. But what has gone largely unreported is an ancillary fact: for the first time in U.S. history, we are spending more to service the national debt than we are on the children who will inherit it.
The U.S. government spent $380 billion last year on interest on the debt, roughly 15 percent more than on programs that ensure child well-being. U.S. spending on children lags well behind our similarly developed peers. Countries including Germany, France and Norway devote three times the share of economic resources to their children as the United States, which comes in barely ahead of Mexico and Turkey.
And while children are one-quarter of America’s population, we invest just 7.2 percent of federal spending in their healthy development. President Trump has proposed dropping that investment to just 6.4 percent, partly by eliminating more than 40 programs that support children and families.
And that’s not even the bad news.
The share of federal spending on children has declined nearly 10 percent since 2015, according to our research at First Focus on Children, and hit an all-time low in Fiscal Year 2019. It is projected to drop even further in the coming decade. This is a moral issue, but it is not only a moral issue. A nation’s budget is a statement of its values, and our failure to invest in our kids signals a dangerous “live for the moment” culture.
If this sounds alarmist, consider that the United States has among the highest rates of child poverty in the industrialized world, at more than 16 percent. More than 12 million children in this country suffer food insecurity. The number of kids without health insurance hit 4.3 million in 2018 and continues to climb, reversing decades of progress. Infant mortality in the United States outstrips nearly every other developed country and is also on the rise.
The shame of this alone – that the wealthiest nation on earth does not care for its children — should be enough to compel us to invest appropriately in the success of our youngest Americans. But for the accountants among us, it is important to note that spending on children is also the best financial investment that we can make as a country.
Harvard researchers led by economist Raj Chetty recently reported that many government programs aimed at children not only pay for themselves, but actually deliver a profit. In particular, the study found that direct government investment in the health and education of low-income children produces higher earnings for these kids — and therefore greater tax revenue — down the road. This is the programmatic equivalent of “buy low, sell high.”
Unless lawmakers dramatically revise their priorities, the Urban Institute projects that less than 1 percent of all new spending will go to children between now and 2028. Our children will inherit the crushing debt incurred by adults who favored tax cuts for themselves over paying down their obligations. They will bear the ballooning cost of supporting their rapidly retiring Baby Boom elders through Medicare and Social Security. They will be forced to enact austerity measures that will savage quality of life for themselves, their children, their grandchildren and likely beyond.
This dereliction of duty will be amplified by the aggressive attacks on children already underway by the current administration. Nearly 12 million American children already live in poverty. And new federal rules threaten to deprive millions more of housing, health care and access to food. The administration’s agenda is nothing less than a generational war on children that is not only morally reprehensible, but economically foolish.
As Congress careens toward a Nov. 21 deadline to secure a comprehensive spending plan for FY 2020, we urge them to give kids what they need. That’s the only way we can expect them to give back.