Senior Fellow and Senior Counselor
The House Appropriations subcommittee-approved fiscal 2020 funding bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Education includes sensible, well-targeted investments in key areas such as child care and Head Start, job training, K-12 education, Social Security operations, and family planning, after years of disinvestment or underfunding. Even with these increases, total funding for these programs would be just 3 percent above what it was a decade ago in inflation-adjusted terms. But policymakers can only enact these investments if the President and Congress override the deep cuts in discretionary funding scheduled for 2020 under the 2011 Budget Control Act’s (BCA) tight funding limits, including the BCA “sequestration” cuts.
The President and Congress have enacted temporary bipartisan agreements since 2013, generally for two years at a time, to reduce the cuts otherwise required by the BCA. Still, policymakers cut non-defense discretionary (NDD) programs by about $400 billion between 2011 and 2017 (after adjusting for inflation). The most recent agreement, for 2018 and 2019, began reversing this disinvestment by fully (rather than partially) eliminating the sequestration cuts for discretionary programs and making new investments in priority areas. Without a new agreement, NDD funding will drop next year by $54 billion or 9 percent below the 2019 level, or by 11 percent after adjusting for inflation.
For now, the House Appropriations Committee is writing funding bills that assume total NDD and defense funding will be above the austere BCA caps and will provide resources for targeted new investments. The Labor-Education-HHS bill is the first of the 12 bills that the committee will draft. In allocating NDD funding among the bills, the committee shifted additional resources to programs in the Labor-Education-HHS bill to invest in important areas, including those that will help families afford child care and improve children’s opportunities, strengthen the skills of our workforce, improve health, and improve Social Security’s customer service:
Child care and Head Start. Two of the bill’s largest funding increases come in early learning, with significant boosts to child care and Head Start. The bill would raise funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant by $2.4 billion or 45 percent over the 2019 level, without adjusting for inflation. Following the sizable child care increase enacted in 2018 and maintained in 2019, this would bring total discretionary funding for child care to $7.7 billion in 2020. And it would bring total overall funding for child care — including mandatory funding (i.e., ongoing funding that’s set in law rather than annually appropriated) — to 74 percent above the 2010 level, after adjusting for inflation.
Child care has been an investment priority in recent years because current funding falls well short of need. Just 15 percent of children who qualified for child care assistance under federal eligibility rules in 2015 received it due to funding shortfalls, and the number of children assisted fell by 450,000 between 2006 and 2017 as the shortfall grew. While the funding increase in 2018 and 2019 will help states serve more families and improve the quality of care, millions of children will remain without help unless funding rises significantly. The House bill’s added investment would close more of the funding gap, but resources would remain far short of what’s needed to assist all eligible children.
The bill also would raise Head Start funding by $1.5 billion or 15 percent over the 2019 level, without adjusting for inflation, bringing total funding to $11.6 billion. The new resources would support higher grantee funding to keep pace with rising costs, expanded high-quality early learning for infants and toddlers (by expanding Early Head Start or partnerships between Head Start and child care programs), and program quality improvements (such as investing in professional development, staff salaries, and equipment, and serving more children in full school-day and full school-year programs). Head Start served about 887,000 low-income infants, toddlers, and preschoolers in 2017, or about 31 percent of eligible preschoolers (ages 3 to 5) and only 7 percent of infants and toddlers.
The bill also would direct HHS to invest at least $100 million of Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplace user fees (fees that insurers pay to support marketplace operations) to help eligible consumers learn about and sign up for comprehensive, affordable coverage through the marketplace. The Administration has slashed funding for ACA marketplace outreach and consumer assistance over the last two years, leaving many consumers unaware of marketplace offerings or unable to get help enrolling. The bill would partially restore this funding, which is particularly critical to inform newly eligible consumers — especially younger or healthier consumers, who might be likelier to forgo coverage — of their marketplace options.