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Beyond the Geezer Wars: Comparing Early Childhood and Pell Funding

As states and the federal government tighten their fiscal belts, we're seeing increasing attention to the intergenerational distribution of public spending and cuts--and concern that policymakers are protecting benefits for the elderly at the expense of substantial cuts in investments in education and other children's programs that impact our nation's future.

Analysis of federal expenditures indicates that less than 10% of the federal budget is spent on programs that benefit children--in contrast to the more than 1/3 of the federal budget that goes to fund health care and income support for the elderly. And since Social Security and Medicare for the elderly have been largely exempted from the current cutting frenzy, that means that large cuts in discretionary programs for children--approximately 22% of spending cuts in the U.S. House Republican budget proposals would come out of programs that benefit kids. This despite the fact that children under age 18 are the most likely of any age group to be living in poverty (except kids under 5, who are even more likely to be poor), with a child poverty rate nearly twice as high as that for people over age 65, and more than one in four children living in poverty. In other words, our budget priorities are eating the nation's seed corn.

But you don't even need to look at the much-remarked geezer/youngster distribution to see how our current approaches shortchange kids in shortsighted ways--this is apparent within the education budget itself.

Consider: The costs of the Pell grant program, which gives grants to college students from lower-income families, has more than doubled from $16 billion in 2008 to a projected $40 billion in 2011--due to a combination of policy choices and economic and demographic factors. Because Pell is treated as a pseudo-entitlement (any undergraduate student who qualifies gets the grant), Congress keeps coming up with funding for Pell even as costs sky-rocket--even though it's far from certain these ever-expanding costs are delivering corresponding benefits in terms of increasing postsecondary attainment rates.

Contrast this with early childhood. Unlike Pell, federal early childhood spending for child care subsidies and Head Start are not even a quasi-entitlement, so hundreds of thousands of eligible low-income children are on waitlists for childcare subsidies, and program services are being cut even as the numbers of poor children who qualify for these programs climbs. During the same period that Pell grant costs rose by over $20 billion, the Obama administration and early childhood advocates failed to win passage of an Early Learning Challenge Grant program that would have spent approximately $1 billion a year. In fact, increasing Pell costs were one factor that ultimately pushed that program out of health care reform legislation last year. Early learning programs did receive some funding boosts in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act--about $1 billion annually each for Head Start and federally subsidized child care--but those funds disappeared at the end of 2010, and Congress is currently eying a more than $1 billion cut in Head Start funding--the largest proposed anywhere in the 2011 budget for education.

Now imagine if the $24 billion increase in annual Pell grant spending over the past three years had instead been allocated to early childhood education. (Just for the sake of the exercise, imagine funds were spent on effective programs--since we're getting crazy here anyway.). Imagine how many more kids could have access to quality pre-k. Imagine the improvements that could be made to pre-k and childcare programs. Imagine how many families could pay for better or more reliable child care that supports kids' development and lets their parents work.

Now, ask yourself: Do you think the increases in annual spending for Pell grants will have as great a long-term effect on our nation's economic development and well-being as if that same money had been spent on effective programs for young children? Not the Pell grant program itself, just the marginal changes in Pell spending over the past 3 years. Before you answer, take a look at the reasons Pell grant costs have gone up.

The point here is not a knock on Pell. Helping low-income students access college is important, for both equity and economic growth reasons. But it's worth questioning why the processes and norms around Pell funding and early childhood funding are so very different. Why can Pell grant spending increase dramatically at the same time that "everyone knows" that significant investments in early childhood education are just not plausible? Why does any undergraduate student who qualifies for a Pell grant get one, but not every child whose family qualified for a child care subsidy? Why are these decisions made with no reference to the relative return on investment in individuals at different stages of the education/development pipeline?

There are answers to these questions, but often they're not particularly good or are of the "that's just the way it is" variety. And when federal budgets are under increasing pressure, when a skilled workforce is critical to our future economic competitiveness, and when ever-rising Pell costs are putting pressure on everything else in the education budget, "that's just the way it is" isn't good enough. As long as early childhood investments are seen primarily through the lens of "can we afford to pay for this on top of these other things we're already doing," we're never going to get there. Only if we take a hard look and say "would spending more on early childhood produce a higher return on investment* than these things we're already doing?"--and not be afraid to call out cuts (in education and elsewhere!)--are we really going to make progress towards investing what we should in kids. I'm not saying the funding needs to come from Pell, or from Social Security, or any particular place. But we do need to start asking the question.

*Or greater benefits in enhancing equity and collective human well-being--those things matter, too

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