I recently attended a session hosted by First Focus during which the latest figures on government spending (in the U.S) for children’s programs was released. There were lots of numbers discussed and some rather distressing percentages provided, comparing spending on children with overall spending. As I was listening to the presentations and perusing the written materials provided, I couldn’t help but wonder how these numbers compared to other areas, say, military spending, for instance.
I’ll start with a disclaimer, the first of several….I’m not an expert on government spending, nor am I a researcher, policy wonk, or economist. The information presented was collected via the web and printed materials from (what I assessed to be) reliable sources.
In the year 2000, $311.7 billion was spent by the U.S. for defense. (I arrived at this figure after combing through dozens of sources, literally. Ultimately, I used the table provided at InfoPlease; and would note that this was within the range found from other sources. This figure does not include spending in areas such as veterans benefits.) In that same year, $148 billion was spent on children (the number is $175 billion when including expenditures for parents; according the Congressional Budget Office).
In the year 2009, $494.3 billion was spent by the U.S. for defense. According to First Focus, $251.4 billion was spent on children in 2009. (Because I could not find a comparable figure from CBO for 2009, I provide here the First Focus figure. I would note that this figure includes temporary funding from the America Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, aka ARRA, slated to end in 2011.)
Data comparability challenges aside, our priorities are obvious. Now, you might say I’m comparing apples to oranges. You’re right, I am. And you might say there are mitigating circumstances, ie: the “War on Terror”. Yes, that’s true, which is why I researched the figures for the year 2000, pre-“War on Terror”.
And you might ask which party was in control, politically, during these time periods. Well, we had a democrat, President Clinton on his way out of the White House in 2000 to be replaced by a republican, President G.W. Bush, in 2001. And, of course, President Obama, a democrat was elected and took office in 2009. So I guess we can lay blame, or credit, at the doorsteps of both parties.
Another question on my mind is how do we, in the U.S., compare to other countries in regard to spending? Well, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or SIPRI, we spend over 6 times the amount spent by China, the next highest military spender. Some estimates suggest the U.S. spends as much as 10% more than the next highest military spender. Enough said.
I tried to find similar data for spending on children, an endeavor that proved to be even murkier than pinpointing spending within the U.S. There’s information on health spending, education spending, early childhood spending, social welfare spending, and the list goes on. I would note that, although the spending research challenges proved insurmountable, there are some comparisons available regarding child well-being. A Unicef publication compares countries across six dimensions. The highest ranking earned by the U.S. was 12th of 30 developed nations in the area of Housing and Environment. Need I say more?
Does spending equal greater well-being? Depends on who you ask. Does spending in one area, education for example, produce better outcomes than spending in other areas? Depends on who you ask. I’m reminded of the adage, ‘if you beat the data long enough, it will say whatever you want’.
I will say this, we, as a nation, need to look carefully at how we use our resources.