2021 saw a historic increase in the share of federal dollars that went to children. Build Back Better could bring even more good news.


November 12, 2021

The share of federal dollars spent on children declined precipitously from 2016 to 2020 – reaching a historic low of 7.6 percent in 2020. 

And then the pandemic settled in. 

In 2021, fueled by COVID-19 relief efforts such as stimulus checks, a significant Child Tax Credit expansion, increased nutrition assistance, and more funding for early education and child care, the share of federal spending on children rose to 11.2 percent – a whopping 3.5 percentage point increase over 2020. It was the largest one-year increase ever recorded. 

These are but a few of the findings included in Children’s Budget 2021, the latest in a series of annual reports issued by First Focus on Children. The report was released last week during First Focus’s 2021 Children’s Budget Summit, which drew activists, advocates, and five members of Congress to an online event examining the status of children, pre-pandemic and now. 

Experts agreed that federal funding efforts on behalf of children have improved compared with the dismal years of 2016 to 2020, when the federal share of spending on children’s programs declined by a calamitous 25 percent. But they warn the progress is not set in stone. 

“The pandemic and its economic fallout revealed decades of delayed maintenance on the systems that protected the health and well-being of our children,” said First Focus President Bruce Lesley. “Massive investments in early childhood funding, income supports, education, and food programs merely stabilized our kids. And yet, some in Congress are working to reverse even these gains.” 

During last week’s summit, speaker after speaker emphasized that whether progress can continue depends on the fate of President Biden’s proposed Build Back Better plan. Participants heard from Xavier Becerra, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, who discussed Biden’s pro-child agenda, not just in the context of Build Back Better, but also provisions included in the American Rescue Plan, passed by Congress in March, and in still more items proposed in President Biden’s FY22 budget proposal. 

Becerra, who previously served as California’s Attorney General as well as in Congress, outlined five areas of progress under Biden: expansion of the Child Tax Credit, more funding for behavioral health, additional support for child care, expansion of Medicaid/CHIP, and newly rolled out vaccines for kids ages 5-11, which were announced the same day that Becerra addressed the summit. 

On behavioral health, Becerra said, “It should not surprise you that HHS is now investing hundreds of millions of dollars to tackle behavioral health problems that we’re now seeing surface in our children, during this pandemic.” 

On CHIP, Becerra said the Biden Administration is working to make CHIP authorization permanent “so that we don’t have to go through the yearly cycle of trying to authorize funding for CHIP.” (The House Build Back Better bill does make CHIP permanent.) 

Every member of Congress who appeared at the virtual summit, along with the experts who participated in panel discussions, linked the issue of the federal share of spending on children’s programs to Build Back Better. 

Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington state Democrat who chairs the powerful Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which has jurisdiction over a large majority of children’s programs, said she is fighting to keep three provisions in Build Back Better – the expanded Child Tax Credit, more funding for child care, and paid family and medical leave. 

“For children and families in my home state of Washington and across the country, the past year and a half has been such a challenge,” she said. “And we know this pain has not been felt equally as this crisis has deepened systemic inequities that were already here long before COVID-19 struck. We can’t just go back to normal. We need to build back better for children and families across the country.” 

Many speakers bemoaned the fact that the U.S. trails far behind almost every other wealthy country both in the amount of money it spends on children, and in efforts to eradicate child poverty. 

Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat who speaks often about the immorality of underfunding anti-poverty programs, said it is “nothing short of a moral crisis and a moral urgency that we have a nation that’s the wealthiest on the planet but that we fall behind our peer nations in investing in our kids.” 

And Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) said investing in children “is all about investing in the future success of our country. I’m proud to partner with the entire team at First Focus on Children to advance our shared mission of ensuring that each and every child in America has equal access to opportunity and the ability to achieve and thrive.” 

Participants also heard from two House members who are long-time advocates for children – Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). Like Senator Murray, Rep. DeLauro also chairs a powerful committee – House Appropriations. And, like Murray, DeLauro has been a longtime advocacy on behalf of children – she first filed legislation to expand the Child Tax Credit about two decades ago. 

“After years of disinvestment, it is time to restore American leadership,” DeLauro said. “And that means investing in our future – our children. Their moment is now.”

Lee added: “Historically, the U.S. has had a high rate of child poverty, significantly higher than other developed countries because we have continually failed to sufficiently invest in our children.” 

So how, exactly, would Build Back Better help America’s children? First Focus’s Bruce Lesley laid out the ways. He said Biden’s proposal would: 

  • Expand child-related tax credits. 
  • Provide universal pre-school. 
  • Invest in child care. 
  • Increase support for educators and child care providers. 
  • Create a national paid family and medical leave program. 
  • Reduce child hunger and improve child nutrition. 
  • Extend Affordable Care Act Family Care Tax Credits. 
  • Expand access to college. 

Referring to First Focus’s 2021 Children’s Budget 2021, Lesley said: “The story that this budget book shows is that we made enormous progress for kids for the first time, but it can all go away unless Congress acts.” 

child poverty
Child Tax Credit
First Focus on Children