Proposed Federal Budget Cuts Would Endanger Vulnerable Families and Children in Foster Care

We’re out of the woods for the time being on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, but for vulnerable children and families, plenty of threats remain on the horizon.

Unraveling the safety net, as these cuts promise to do, will put more children at risk of entries into foster care and, for those who do enter care, undermine efforts to support them at school, at home, and in our communities.  Based on our analysis of the most recent budget blueprint, the following are just some of the proposed cuts and their potential impact on California children in foster care:

Education

The Budget Blueprint proposes reducing the Department of Education by $9 billion, eliminating many programs that aim to support low-income and vulnerable children in school. For example, the Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants, which provides low-income and minority students with greater access to effective teachers as well as funding for programs to allow students access to quality after school programs, would be completely eliminated.  Due to family instability, placement changes, and trauma, children in foster care tend to fall behind in school and have the worst educational outcomes of any group of students in the state. Thus, they are directly affected by reductions in programs that seek to improve the educational experience for vulnerable students.

Housing

Funding for subsidized housing and supportive services is also at stake, threatening the post-emancipation safety net on which many former foster youth rely. Nationally, 40% of homeless youth report a history of foster care.  The proposal slashes the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s budget by $6.2 billion.  Specifically, it eliminates the Community Development Block Grant, a program that provides annual grants to cities and counties in order to develop viable communities and adequate housing.  These cuts are an assault on the great strides made in Los Angeles in recent months to combat the pervasive homeless problem, with voters approving $1.2 billion in bonds and an additional .25 percent sales tax increase to fund homeless services and subsidies.  If Trump’s proposed HUD cuts were to go through, these gains at the local level may no longer supplement current funding of homeless programs and services, but, instead, supplant the void left by the federal budget.  Without increasing the supply of supportive housing programs, foster youth face a cliff at the point that their eligibility for foster care benefits ends.  The federal government should be bolstering state efforts to combat homelessness, which ultimately directly benefits former foster youth, not hampering those efforts and putting our youth further behind.

Unspecified Cuts to Health and Human Services Funding

The blueprint proposes reducing the Department of Health and Human Services budget by $15.1 billion, or a whopping 17.9%. Details on where the cuts will come from are scarce in the blueprint released, but past Republican proposals suggest these cuts are likely to come from the severe curtailment of entitlement programs. Recently, Republicans have proposed block granting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP benefits), which many foster youth between the ages of 18 and 21 rely on to be able to purchase food every month. After exiting foster care, SNAP benefits are among the only entitlements that a former foster youth can count on receiving.

Republicans have also, in the past, proposed the elimination the Social Security Block Grant, which provides flexible funding for states to use for a variety of social services programs. Nationwide, SSBG represents 10% of the federal funding stream for child welfare services. The loss of these funds would likely result in curtailment of many of the state-only investments California has made in its child welfare system to increase capacity to recruit, retain and support families.

Legal Aid

Beyond undercutting the ability of vulnerable young people to receive critical education, housing, nutrition, and other services, the blueprint also proposes cuts that will make it harder for low-income citizens to turn to legal aid lawyers to navigate complicated bureaucracies to access the support they need.  The budget blueprint proposes the elimination of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the largest funder and the centerpiece of civil legal aid for our country’s underserved populations.

Conclusion

As President Trump dutifully notes in his proposal, the budget exemplifies the federal government’s priorities, and, it is clear these priorities do not include protecting vulnerable children and families.  Robust mental health care, substance abuse treatment, and other efforts to stabilize vulnerable families can, in some cases, prevent a child from entering the system at all. When a child must enter the child welfare system for their own safety and well-being, we want to be sure those children and their foster care givers are supported in providing for all of the child’s needs so that they can recover and thrive. Even Republican lawmakers pay lip service to this goal. Yet when we review the current budget proposal, it’s clear that the budget strategy reflects the longstanding trickle-down approach to cutting social welfare programs that has been proven to lead to more entries into foster care and more trauma and suffering for children once they are in the system.

This approach is at odds with California’s priorities.  In recent years, California has made sweeping changes to its child welfare laws, increasing the rates received by caregivers and providing additional support for youth transitioning out of foster care.  We have one of the most progressive approaches to foster care in the country, and our state and local leaders have committed to a strategy of continuous improvement that takes seriously the history of grim outcomes for youth who enter foster care and the lessons learned about how to do better by our kids. But the current climate in Washington directly threatens the progress that has been achieved in California. The cuts described above would create a magnitude of loss of federal funding from which we cannot recover using local resources alone. For this reason, everyone in California who is committed to the well-being of vulnerable children must be tireless in our efforts to shed light on the consequences of the federal budget for our foster care system and related social safety nets.

Only Congress has the ability to pass the budget and the blueprint is a long way from a done deal.  But we have the opportunity to bring to light inadequate policies and half-baked measures that don’t take into account the preventable consequences for vulnerable young people. Resistance to the current budget blueprint is the next battle before us and children in foster care and those at risk of entering the child welfare system are counting on us to stand together and make their voices and needs heard.