Children are a low priority for federal investment

Children may be the future, but not when it comes to federal spending.

The amount the U.S. government spends on kids has now fallen below 10 percent of total federal spending and is decreasing even as spending overall grows, a new report finds. If current spending patterns continue, we'll be paying more on interest on the national debt in two years than we spend on kids, according to "The Kids' Share," a yearly report from the Urban Institute. 

It wasn't always like this. For the half-century from 1960 to 2010, children's share of spending grew before it started to drop off. In 2010, kids made up 10.6 percent of the federal budget. That dropped to 9.4 percent last year, and is projected to decline to 6.8 percent in 2028. At the same time, spending on adults receiving Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare will take up 50 percent, according to projections.

"How the government spends money reflects our priorities," said Heather Hahn, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.

The report calculates children's share of spending every year by compiling programs specifically targeted to kids (such as education) as well as the share of national programs, like Medicaid and nutrition assistance, that go to kids. (Federal spending to detain immigrant children whose families have been apprehended at the border isn't included here.)

The decrease is partly an effect of demographics. As more and more Americans age into Social Security and Medicare, they'll take up a larger share of spending, decreasing the amounts spent on other items. But children have also been affected by cuts to health spending and stand to be disproportionately hurt by changes to food assistance or health care programs. 

Conversely, research shows that investing in early childhood programs, such as Head Start, has a disproportionately positive effect on kids' development. It pays economic dividends, too, leading to higher income, better health and lower instances of crime -- which costs society money -- for the kids who participate. 

"Our nation once invested in its future, but now we're struggling to pay for the past," said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which reached a similar conclusion in a report last month.