The New Strategy for Raising (and Protecting) Money for Kids

Advocates are hoping to replicate the success they had at the ballot box this year.
by | December 13, 2016
(AP/Elaine Thompson)

Amid Donald Trump's largely unexpected victory on Election Day, it was easy to miss an emerging trend in local elections: In about a dozen communities around the country, voters approved tax hikes for children's services and measures that will keep policymakers from dipping into those funds for other purposes.

Some places have had a dedicated children's fund, which legally can't be spent on anything else, since the 1990s. But the funds are becoming increasingly common.

“It’s definitely a budding movement,” said Elizabeth Gaines, a senior fellow at the Forum for Youth Investment, a research and advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

The measures passed in November will help fund a wide range of programs, from youth homelessness prevention to preschool to foster care. They passed in cities and counties on the East and West Coasts (Baltimore, Oakland, Calif.; San Francisco) and in several Midwestern localities, such as Cincinnati and Jackson County, Mo.

With cash-strapped states and localities often taking money that was supposed to be spent on one thing and spending it on something else, the idea of dedicated funds is also growing in other areas, such as transportation.

“Getting it institutionalized provides stability,” said Margaret Brodkin, who helped establish a dedicated children’s fund in San Francisco in 1991. “Budget battles are war, and we are not sacred cows in the budget.”

At the state level, voters in both red and blue states sent a strong anti-tax message on Election Day this year. Most tax-raising measures failed -- even if they were meant to fund largely noncontroversial services like education. But at the local level, it's typically more likely for tax hikes to pass.

The success of the child services measures has spurred some advocates to establish a national network solely for helping local leaders get more of these initiatives on the ballot. Earlier this month, The Forum for Youth Investment debuted The Children's Funding Project, which will offer local nonprofits and government leaders guidance on every aspect of local ballot campaigns, from identifying the best revenue source to building a coalition to collect signatures and win voters' support. To some degree, the Forum is borrowing from a manual developed by Brodkin for localities in California.

The push for local funding comes at a time when the share of federal discretionary spending on children has declined about 7 percent since 2010. The Urban Institute predicts that share will continue to shrink as more of the federal budget goes to health and retirement spending on adults, and to paying down interest on the debt.

That's where the voters can help.

In Jackson County, Mo., a budget shortfall of $180 million was preventing county commissioners from increasing spending on mental health and addiction treatment for teenagers. So advocates went to the voters for an increase of one-eighth of one cent on the county sales tax to generate about $15 million in annual revenue for its existing children's fund. It passed with 58 percent of the vote.

Republican women were critical to the ballot measure’s success. Earlier in the year, internal polling showed that only about 48 percent of likely voters supported the measure, said Todd Patterson, a consultant who helped with the Jackson County campaign. After the campaign targeted female Trump supporters with children, they found their bipartisan majority. Patterson called them “free-style Evangelicals,” shorthand for religious conservatives who still support public programs that benefit children’s health and well-being.

Although more children's funds are popping up around the country, they don't always succeed at the ballot box. Rather than take issue with the purpose of the funds, opponents often cite the burden of extra taxes as a reason to vote against the measures.

Only two states, Florida and Missouri, have laws explicitly allowing counties to create a dedicated tax fund for children's services. Since 2004, eight Missouri counties have created such funds. Eight counties in Florida also have children’s funds, though those have the distinction of being run as special tax districts.

Localities in other states have established funds because the state hasn’t preempted them from doing so. The Forum for Youth Investment is in the process of assembling a database of every city and county with a voter-approved children’s tax fund. So far, they've found 30 around the country.