The Right Priorities

Congress Should Pass Key Children’s Legislation During the Lame Duck Session

Congress is going to be busy with many items during its brief lame duck session. But while they decide whether to continue expensive tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans they must also determine the fate of some far less costly policies that are crucial for the well-being of our nation’s children—Child Nutrition, Child Support, and the TANF Emergency Fund, which provides subsidized job opportunities for low-income parents.

Here’s the price comparison between the children’s programs and the tax cuts using one-year extensions for the child support and TANF programs that would help families get through these difficult economic times.

Extensions of the Bush tax cuts vs. extensions of legislation to help children*

Bonus tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans Children’s legislation
$830 billion over 10 years

Child Nutrition—$4.5 billion over 10 years

Child Support Enforcement—$669 million (one-year extension)

TANF Emergency Fund—$2.5 billion (one-year extension)

Congress is poised to make a critical statement about our national priorities. The children’s legislation spending represents less than 1 percent of the bonus tax cuts for the wealthy. Will some members continue to argue that we can afford expensive bonus tax cuts for the wealthy while on the other side of their mouths say that the nation can’t afford the comparatively token sums for critical programs benefiting children?

These programs are still responsive to great needs. The Great Recession continues to affect many children as well as their parents. Poverty rates are at 20.7 percent and children are being hurt by adults experiencing unemployment and underemployment and governments making cuts to education and food. The children are at critical stages of development and failing to address their needs now will cause lifelong harm.

It would appear the nation really doesn’t have a choice. It must act on Child Nutrition, Child Support, and the TANF Emergency Fund.

Child Nutrition

Congress has been retooling the Child Nutrition Act to better address childhood hunger and obesity. The Department of Agriculture released new data on Monday indicating that 10.6 percent of households with children had food-insecure children during some part of 2009. This number reflects an ongoing crisis but is also a testament to the effectiveness of government policies and investments. Food insecurity among children actually dropped in 2009 even as unemployment and child poverty continued to rise. As for obesity, nearly one in three children are overweight or obese with an even higher rate among low-income children. This is more than a problem—it’s an epidemic.

The legislation would greatly benefit children by expanding access to schools meals, encouraging antihunger innovations in states, and helping to provide healthier eating options in schools. These changes are also cost-effective given the estimated $28 billion childhood hunger cost the nation each year and the $14.1 billion per year figure associated with obesity.

Child Support Enforcement

The Child Support Enforcement program reaches one in four American children and distributes $24.3 billion each year through its collections from noncustodial parents who are largely fathers. It serves families of varying income levels. Agencies help families establish child support orders, collect and distribute payments, and enforce delinquent orders. For the nation’s most vulnerable children these dollars can be vital. They lift 1 million people out of poverty each year.

During the Bush administration the funding for child support was slashed but the Recovery Act restored it in 2009. The restored funds expired in September resulting in an estimated $2 billion per year decrease in collections on behalf of single-parent families. Congress should renew the funds for at least one more year.

TANF Emergency Fund

The Republican Study Committee claims the TANF Emergency Fund discourages people from working but in reality it gets people back to work. Over the last two years it created nearly 250,000 subsidized jobs. These employer subsidies target adults with children and they have greatly benefited small businesses. Parents are able to work so that they can provide their children with shelter, food, and other necessities. The parents also can reduce their reliance on public assistance and gain valuable work experience that can be of use in future job searches.

Congress allowed the funding for the program to expire at the end of September but now has the opportunity to renew its funding.

The right priorities

These children’s issues should take priority during the lame duck session even as other issues such as tax cuts for the wealthy continue to be debated. Legislators from both sides of the aisle can certainly agree that we should make sure children have enough healthy foods to eat, that their parents are able financially provide for them, and that parents who don’t have jobs can get back to work.

Joy Moses is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Poverty and Prosperity program at American Progress.

*$4.5 billion is the figure attached to legislation passed by the Senate. The House bill would spend $8 billion over 10 years.

Sources for chart: Michael Ettlinger, “The Wealthy Don’t Need Bonus Tax Cuts” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2010); U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Fiscal Year 2011 Budget in Brief (2010); and Mike Lillis, “House Panel Approves Sweeping Expansion of Child Nutrition Programs,” The Hill, July 15, 2010.