First Focus report: Federal spending on children rose sharply in 2021, but now has regressed 


October 12, 2022

A child needs more than just food to grow. When children are deprived of food, shelter, and extracurriculars they fall behind their peers. How is a child who is going to bed hungry going to have the energy to pay attention in school? How is a child without a warm bed going to get enough sleep? How is a child not going to notice their crying parents at the kitchen table desperately trying to figure out how to survive?  

In the United States, children hold the record for the highest official poverty rates, compared with peer nations. The decisions made in Congress directly impact their quality of life. Many are trapped in the poverty cycle with no way to get out on their own. 

But we know that there is a simple solution to ending child poverty — invest money in children. In 2020, the Supplemental Poverty Measure for children was 9.7 percent. In 2021, this number dramatically decreased to 5.2 percent because of federal spending dedicated to combatting child poverty. Such spending included the expanded Child Tax Credit which alone helped 5.3 million people rise out of poverty in 2021.  

First Focus on Children is an advocacy organization whose mission is to prioritize children and families in “federal policy and budget decisions.” Last week the group released its annual Children’s Budget Report, which highlights and analyzes the share of spending that is dedicated to children and families at a federal level. The Children’s Budget Report emphasized that the 2022 fiscal year was an “unprecedented” year for child spending in the federal budget.  

First Focus on Children reports that 11.98 percent, or $700 billion, of federal spending was spent on children in the 2022 fiscal year. This is a 21 increase from 2017 and the highest share of spending ever recorded by First Focus. The Children’s Budget Report also showed increases in mental health funding of 11.3 percent, federal spending shares dedicated to education increasing by 105 percent, and a 36 percent increase in federal spending  for children’s nutrition programs. Other programs with a significant increase in federal spending shares included children’s environmental health, justice and child protection, and children’s income support.  

Benefits such as the expanded Child Tax Credit, universal school lunch, and expansion of SNAP were all prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. For two years, families received the additional benefits that many anti-hunger and anti-poverty groups have been asking for, which resulted in lifting millions out of poverty. Unfortunately, many of the programs that reduced child poverty have ended or will end this year, including free school lunches for all and the expanded Child Tax Credit, which expired last December. Without the pandemic looming over Congress, we are heading back to where we were two years ago and families are already feeling the difference.  

Kentucky mother Amy Jean Tyler told NPR, “Since my husband has been dealing with layoffs, the one extra source of income we can rely on had been the Child Tax Credit. Since the Child Tax Credit has stopped, we have about $34 left in our bank account.”  

Sarah Anderson, a mother of four, shared a similar experience as Amy, “I lost both of my jobs during the course of the pandemic. The money wasn’t a replacement for that income, but it just helped keep everything afloat. And to lose that money, especially where the price of everything has skyrocketed – go to the grocery store, and groceries seem like they’re way more, almost double what they were, you know, even last year. I just feel really abandoned by this country, honestly, and by our Congress.” 

Amy and Sarah are not alone in their sentiments; a study conducted by Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy found that in January 2022, just one month after the CTC expired, 3.7 million more children were in poverty. An estimated 10 million children no longer qualified for free school lunches in the 2022 school year. And as of September 2022, 5 million children lived in food-insecure households. The cost of allowing millions to fall back into poverty is far too high. America cannot afford to put a Band-Aid on the bullet hole that is child poverty.  

Jessica Troe, Senior Director of First Focus on Children, stated “If Congress fails to act on critical policy issues and budgetary decisions of importance to children, we will see rising rates of child poverty, increasing numbers of uninsured children, more children left hungry and homeless, and an increase in the number of kids living in high stress and under-resourced households.” 

President Biden has said on multiple occasions “Don’t tell me what you value.  Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” It’s time we start valuing children.  

Children's Budget Report
First Focus on Children