Tax Plan’s Deficits Could Prompt Elimination of Major Child Welfare Programs

The common narrative on the many iterations of the Republican-led tax reform package is that it adds something in the neighborhood of $1.5 trillion to the deficit. Various ideas on how to add more revenue to the plan have been bandied about by deficit hawks in the past few days to address that deficit.

But if Congress doesn’t figure out how to pay for that gap, it will be within the power of the Trump administration to do so under the current federal spending rules. If that happens, several key programs to prevent child abuse and neglect, and to keep families together after maltreatment has occurred, will take a major hit or could be completely defunded.

Here’s the gist. Under current federal laws, we have a pay-as-you-go system – known better as PAYGO – that generally prohibits Congress from passing laws that increase the federal deficit. This plan was first put in place during the George W. Bush presidency, and was continued during the Obama era.

If such a law is passed, Congress has first crack at handling it with supplemental legislation. It could do so in one fell swoop, making cuts that cover the full 10-year window of deficit projections. Or, Congress can attempt to address the annualized segment of the deficit, trying to each year pass legislation that addresses one-tenth of the deficit created. That is as bad as it sounds, setting up a political hot potato over cuts every year.

If Congress leaves a deficit unaddressed, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has the discretion to use sequestration to implement across-the-board cuts to mandatory federal spending. For a $1.5 trillion deficit, OMB would divide that into the standard 10-year window and shave accordingly.

According to the Committee for a Responsible Budget, OMB would cut $114 billion from non-exempt programs in 2018.

You can click here to read a list compiled by the New York Times of all the programs that would be subject to elimination. Here are three major funding vehicles for child welfare services that are in the crosshairs:

Promoting Safe and Stable Families Act (PSSF), a section of Title IV-B of the Social Security Act established in 1993 that funds state efforts to prevent the unnecessary removal of children from their families. PSSF funds family preservation services, as well as time-limited reunification services. Click here for a good overview of the program’s history, and the ways in which states use the funds.

PSSF was funded at $384 million in 2017; the Trump administration request for 2018 was $416 million. There is also a discretionary funding component to PSSF, which means Congress could restore funding in the appropriations process.

Last year, the proposed Family First Prevention Services Act would have stuck the time-limited assistance into Title IV-E, a federal entitlement that currently only pays for foster care services unless a state has obtained a waiver. Family First would have then made PSSF an entirely family preservation and foster care prevention-focused block grant.

This would further tilt the federal share of child welfare spending toward foster care and breaking up families at a time when the administration has voiced interests in the other direction. In a recent interview with The Imprint, top Trump child welfare official Jerry Milner stated the following priorities:

First, we need to change the focus of child welfare to primary prevention of maltreatment and unnecessary removal of children from their families. We can only break the cycle of family disruption and maltreatment by addressing the root causes of those situations.

Second, we should prioritize the importance of families by ensuring that when foster care is necessary, it operates as a support for the family rather than a substitute for the parent. The integrity of the parent-child bond is essential to healthy child development. Whenever it’s possible and safe, the foster care system should support that bond by engaging birth parents to remain a vital part of their children’s care and routines even while in foster care.

Social Services Block Grant, a flexible chunk of money for states to address community needs, which can include child welfare and family assistance programs. Funded at $1.7 billion in 2017, Trump proposed eliminating this program in his 2018 request.

Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV), a $400 million program that helps states pair new and expecting mothers with help from nurses and other professionals. States can spend their MIECHV allotment on a slate of approved models for home visiting, the most well-known of which is Nurse-Family Partnership.

MIECHV hasn’t yet been reauthorized for this year, so technically it cannot yet “face” a cut or elimination. But the lack of a reauthorization already has the program on shaky ground, and states will surely start to freeze enrollment on new referrals to home visiting if MIECHV’s future is further doomed by sequestration.

It is hard to imagine a more absurd reversal from one year to the next in terms of child welfare spending. Last year, Congress was a few holdouts away from including non-foster care funds in the IV-E entitlement, putting more emphasis on keeping families together.

In 2018, federal funds to keep families together and prevent maltreatment could be swept away in the sea of sequestration. And in the following year, 2019, the waivers that allow some state flexibility in IV-E could expire.

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Legislative leaders in California have produced an initial plan to achieve Gov. Gavin Newsom's call for the closure of the state's Department of #JuvenileJustice, which once housed more than 10,000 youth and young adults and now holds fewer than 1,000.