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Budget & Finance

End Head Start, School Lunch Programs to Cut Deficit? Federal Report Probes Options

By Andrew Ujifusa — December 16, 2018 3 min read
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Capitol Hill’s budget arm says that among the many options federal lawmakers have for cutting the budget deficit, they could consider eliminating Head Start and federally supported school meal programs.

The Congressional Budget Office’s “Options for Reducing the Deficit: 2019 to 2028" is the latest in a series of reports the office releases to help lawmakers consider options for reducing the federal deficit, which in fiscal 2018 stood at $778 billion, or 3.8 percent of gross domestic product. There are a total of 121 possibilities the CBO lists for reducing the deficit, and there are a few programs listed that education policy advocates and observers might be interested in. The report also explores changes to Pell Grants and certain loan forgiveness programs available to teachers.

Keep in mind that this report from the CBO doesn’t require or place any burden on Congress to do anything—the office is just listing options for lawmakers to consider. Also: The CBO isn’t explicitly endorsing any of these options.

  • Child Nutrition Programs

Instead of the current funding and structure provided to school meal programs, the CBO outlines an approach familiar to many who deal with education policy and politics: block grants.

“This option would convert SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps] and the child nutrition programs to separate, smaller block grants to the states beginning in October 2019. The block grants would provide a set amount of funding to states each year, and states would be allowed to make significant changes to the structure of the programs,” the report states.

The budget analysts say this approach would reduce total spending on child nutrition programs by $88 billion, while savings for SNAP would be $160 million over the same time period. Spending on child nutrition programs like school lunch totaled $23 billion in fiscal 2018.

  • Head Start

This is pretty straightforward. “This option would eliminate Head Start,” the CBO says.

The savings? From 2020 to 2028, the CBO estimates the savings would add up to $92 billion. The program got about $9 billion in fiscal 2018, and the office estimates that the feds will spend about $12 billion annually on Head Start by fiscal 2028.

“The main argument for this option is that many of the children expected to be enrolled in Head Start in the future would be enrolled in alternative preschool or child-care programs (both public and private) if Head Start was eliminated,” the report states.

  • Supplemental Security Income for Disabled Children

The SSI program provides cash benefits to disabled people, including children as well as the aged, and who are low income and have few assets. In 2018, 1.2 million people under the age of 18 are expected to receive SSI, with an average cash benefit of $686 a month. Mandatory spending would decline by $100 billion through 2028, the report estimates.

“Eliminating SSI benefits for children may encourage their parents to increase work and thereby increase earnings,” says the report, which goes on to cite research findings about SSI and work. (See page 95 of the report.)

You might be wondering at this point: Does the report highlight any programs at the U.S. Department of Education?

The answer is yes, but on this front, the report focuses more on higher education programs and not K-12. One notable option the CBO lists is reducing the maximum award for Pell Grants, which provide aid to low-income students in undergraduate degree programs. There are two different options for this presented in the report, and the savings would be either $31 billion or $62 billion over the 10-year period in question.

And eliminating or reducing the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which teachers can use under certain circumstances, would save anywhere from $6.4 billion to $22.4 billion over the time period.

The report also raises the possibility of tightening eligibility for Pell Grants.

Education and education-related options are a small part of the potential methods for deficit reduction explored in the report, which focuses on everything from eliminating itemized deductions on federal taxes to raising the full retirement age for Social Security.

Read the full report from the CBO.