Why Children and Families with Low Incomes Need a Fully Funded Federal Budget

By Rricha deCant

The federal government teetered toward a full shutdown on September 30, the end of the federal fiscal year. However, at literally the 11th hour, a shutdown was averted with a continuing resolution (CR) signed into law by President Biden. The bill keeps the government funded until November 17, 2023, by which point Congress will have to pass all of its appropriations bills or pass another CR to keep the government funded. While the millions of Americans who are impacted by federal programs and regulations won’t lose access to benefits and services for the next 45 days, Congress must act swiftly to avert another potential shutdown. Policymakers must prioritize families and children with adequate resources to avoid adding more harm to what the loss of pandemic relief programs already caused.

How Did We Get Here?

A divided Congress always presents challenges for House and Senate leadership. Lawmakers must compromise to reach a policy solution that can be passed by each chamber and ultimately signed by the president. The 118th Congress has faced significant challenges in passing any legislation due to factions within the parties and difficulties for both House and Senate leadership to find consensus within their caucuses. In the House, Republicans hold an extremely slim majority over the Democrats with a small nine-seat margin. In the Senate, Democrats hold a narrow 51-49 majority.

This year has already seen a showdown in Congress over suspending the debt limit. The Fiscal Responsibility Act was passed on June 3, 2023, as a compromise measure between then-Speaker McCarthy and President Biden. The bill lifted the debt ceiling until January 1, 2025, but it also froze spending for non-discretionary programs for fiscal year 2024. Unfortunately, the bill put additional burdens on some individuals and families who are eligible for benefits such as cash assistance and nutrition programs by expanding work requirements. Even still, the bill was not conservative enough for some House Republicans, and then-Speaker McCarthy had to rely on Democrats to pass the bill in the House.

However, House Republicans chose not to honor the deal and pushed for deeper cuts of up to 30 percent in their appropriations bills. They also tried to use migrants at the border as bargaining chips by seeking to decimate the asylum system in exchange for keeping the government open. However, when House leadership brought a CR paired with a border security bill to the floor, it did not pass. In the end, House leadership had to put a clean CR on the floor that included money for disaster relief yet excluded money for Ukraine. The bill eventually passed 335-91 with support from Democrats, but it came at a cost. Just three days later Kevin McCarthy was ousted as Speaker of the House through a Motion to Vacate, brought by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) because, once again, McCarthy had to rely on Democrats to pass the bill, which did not include any major conservative victories in the process.

What’s at Stake?

The chaos in Congress is putting many programs at risk. For example, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is facing significant funding shortfalls in both the House and Senate bills. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) estimates that 4.6 million people could be turned away from WIC under the step cuts in the House bill, and up to 800,000 people could be turned away from accessing the benefit under the Senate proposal. The CR permits the Department of Agriculture to move funds into the WIC program, but additional funding is needed to ensure participants don’t lose their benefits.

Access to affordable child care is also threatened without additional funding appropriated soon. Discretionary funding for child care is appropriated through the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). The House Labor-Health and Human Services Appropriations bill flat funds this program, while the Senate bill increases funds to CCDBG by $700 million. However, these amounts still fall woefully short of demonstrated need. Additionally, most of the billions of dollars invested in child care during the pandemic expired on September 30—including approximately two-thirds of the more than $50 billion allocated. The remaining $15 billion has to be spent by next September 2024. We estimate that $16 billion is needed per year to make up for the shortfall expected in the coming months. This means that if Congress passes further CRs or does not significantly increase funds for CCDBG through an end-of-the-year budget bill or otherwise invest in child care, families, children, and providers will face the consequences. The Administration for Children and Families estimates that the child care stabilization resources that just expired reached more than 220,000 providers and 9.6 million children. Without additional resources, our nation’s economy will suffer as less care will be available, care will be more expensive, and more parents may have to drop out of the workforce if they don’t have access to reliable child care.

Additionally, American workers are at risk if labor agencies aren’t fully funded to protect their rights or aren’t able to enforce laws that promote their well-being and safety. For example, the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor, which is responsible for enforcing the federal minimum wage, overtime pay, child labor laws, and the Family and Medical Leave Act, has requested an additional $81 million and is at risk of losing close to 1,000 full-time employees if the House Appropriations bill were passed, which cuts $75 million from FY23 levels. Another agency that helps ensure the safety of workers is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The House Appropriations bill cuts the workforce of OSHA by $85 million, which would leave the agency with hundreds of fewer workers than it needs by the end of the year. This means more worker injuries and possibly deaths due to the lack of enforcement.

Inaction by Congress and delays in ensuring that federal programs and agencies are fully funded means that more families with low incomes and children are at risk of losing benefits and protections. This is not good for the U.S. economy, reverses progress in reducing poverty, and reduces inequities in the workplace. Passing a budget has become more complicated, as the House does not currently have a Speaker and cannot bring bills to the floor for votes. Congress should end its brinkmanship and fully fund the programs and agencies that millions rely on to provide support in times of need.