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How Much Does the Federal Government Spend on Kids?

As politicians and policymakers focus increasing attention on both current and long-term federal fiscal deficits, the intergenerational distribution of federal spending is coming in for heightened scrutiny. One stat--the federal government spends more than 6 times as much per elderly person in the U.S. as it does per child--is particularly striking.

Local, state, and federal governments combined spend a little over $26,000, on average, on each elderly person over 65, compared to $11,822 on each child 18 and under. Moreover, the bulk of spending on the elderly comes from federal funds, while more than 2/3 of spending per child comes from state and local sources--which have been much more vulnerable in the recent recession.

But the picture's more complicated than that--there's significant variation in government spending amounts and sources on children of different ages, as a recent Urban Institute report, funded by the Foundation for Child Development, shows. State and local governments provide the lion's share of spending on school-aged children, and the federal government provides the bulk of spending on infants and toddlers. Not surprisingly, the federal government spends the greatest amount on infants and toddlers ages 0-2--about $5,485 per infant/toddler annually in direct expenses and $1,092 in tax expenditures, with medicaid constituting the largest share of the direct expenditures. In contrast, the federal government spends about $4,850 in direct expenditures and $894 in tax expenditures per child ages 6-11, and $4,376 in direct expenditures and $735 in tax expenditures per child ages 12-18. The federal government spends more on younger children for health care and anti-poverty programs (particularly Medicaid and TANF) as well as in tax expenditures. Children ages 6-11 receive the largest amount of federal education funds, particularly Title I. Because many of these funds are targeted to children in poverty, they are not evenly allocated across the population of children--the federal government spends much more on some children and virtually nothing on many others. More detail available here.

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