American politics, especially in the Donald Trump era, increasingly resembles a slow-motion civil war between the nation’s past and its future. One of the best places to track the state of battle is the federal budget.
Federal spending is steadily tilting toward the preponderantly white senior population and away from the increasingly diverse youth population. Put another way, precisely as the racial diversity of America’s youngest cohorts is rising, the level of federal investment in children is falling. That has ominous implications for both the nation’s economic competitiveness and its social stability.
This steady shift in federal resources was quantified in an annual Urban Institute study released last week. In 1960, the study reported, programs that benefited kids represented only about 3 percent of the federal budget. That poked past 5 percent in 1970 after the creation of Medicaid, Head Start, and Title I, which supports low-income schools, during the Great Society, the flurry of domestic programs passed by Lyndon B. Johnson during the 1960s. In 1990, programs for kids still represented about 5 percent of federal spending.
But over the next two decades, the kids’ share of the budget grew rapidly. Congress under Bill Clinton expanded tax credits targeted to low-income families and created the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides coverage for the children of the working poor. Barack Obama channeled fully one-fourth of his massive 2009 economic-recovery program into programs benefiting kids, particularly health-care coverage, support for local education, and early-childhood programs. The result was that in 2010, spending on kids reached 10.6 percent of the federal budget, a modern high.