A central tenet of clinical social work is “person in context.” Social workers examine a person or family’s social, physical, spiritual, and political context to determine the best intervention. In my social work practice, the fundamental question I asked myself was “what resources and programs are available to my clients?” As a family therapist, and in working with youth, I routinely connected families to resources related to child care, early education, after-school programming, arts, and sports programs. Engaging children and youth in structured activities on a consistent basis in a positive environment is crucial to their development and the overall health of schools and communities. The availability and accessibility of these resources at times meant life or death to the families I worked with.

Now, as a newly elected city council member, the fundamental question I ask myself is “how do we pay for, sustain, and create additional resources for children and youth to ensure their safety, healthy development, and success?”

The answer is simple: Communities must engage in the process of strategic public financing.

Strategic public financing is a process that assigns a cost to the goals and policy priorities a community has for its children and youth—and identifies ways to cover that cost. The process is guided by three essential questions:

  1. How much funding do we currently have?
  2. How much funding do we need?
  3. How do we fill the gap between our existing funding and the amount we need to achieve our goals?

As communities explore and answer these questions, many discover they need a consistent source of revenue to meet their goals generated through a voter-approved children’s fund.

Guess what? Voters agree.

More than 80% of voters believe that creating equitable opportunities for children to get a strong start in life should be one of the highest priorities for government—and they are willing to raise their own local taxes to make those opportunities possible. This finding, and others about voters’ attitudes toward funding for children and youth services, comes from a national poll of U.S. voters that Children’s Funding Project commissioned with Children’s Funding Accelerator (our advocacy arm) and conducted with FM3 Research in August 2021.

The reality is voters will tax themselves for kids.

At Children’s Funding Project we envision a nation where all children and youth thrive because all communities maintain equitable, coordinated, and sustainable funding for comprehensive services and programs. Yet the current national labor shortage, caused partly by insufficient funding to support competitive salaries, is making those types of comprehensive services and programs unattainable for some communities. We can see this impact in organizations that serve children and youth. Nurses, social workers, mental health professionals, and other direct service providers are in high demand; however, many of these positions are not competitively paid professions despite requiring graduate degrees.

Additionally, early education providers are often women and people of color who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and the worker shortage. Strategic public financing can address incentives and fairness in wages for professions that serve youth and children. Attracting and retaining professionals in any community is crucial to economic stability and growth, and strategic public financing can both serve children and youth as well as attract and retain the talent we need to serve them. It also helps to know voters approve raising taxes to increase wages for child care workers and early education providers. 

Moreover, having a consistent revenue source, like a voter-approved children’s fund, that strategically addresses a community’s goals for kids eliminates the “robbing Peter to pay Paul” budgeting that often happens when addressing a crisis with limited resources. When communities align their funding sources and know how much it will cost to address their goals, programs no longer have to compete for limited funds and the community can center equity and access in its solutions.

Robust and comprehensive investment in children and youth are assets communities can leverage in their quest for growth. Growth is essential to economic stability.  Attracting and retaining residents, incentivizing homeownership, entrepreneurship, and general investment by residents increases the tax base. An increased tax base allows for more investment in core services, amenities, and public education. This virtuous cycle is enhanced when families see a community’s commitment to their children and youth, and can easily access early childhood care and education, out-of-school time programming, and other family services. Strategic public financing is an important tool for growth. Investing in children and youth is the best investment a community can make.

We know voters will tax themselves for children and youth, and that they support taxes for increasing wages for early childhood providers. And we’ve come to an understanding that investing in children and youth is crucial to growth. What’s next?

I’m glad you asked!

First, ask yourself the three questions that are central to the process of strategic public financing: (1) How much funding do we have? (2) How much funding do we need? (3) How do we fill the gap? To help you answer these questions we have a few resources for you. To find out how much funding you currently have consider a state and/or local fiscal map. A fiscal map is a tool for analyzing public spending at the city, county, state, or federal level. We support these analyses to help communities better understand their current investments in children and youth. If you want to know more about how much funding you need consider cost modeling. We work with local leaders to estimate how much money they need to achieve their goals and identify the true cost of the services and support a community’s children need. Then, when you’re ready to fill the gap, check out our introduction to voter-approved children’s funds. We are here to support you through the entire process.

Strategic public financing isn’t a linear process. It is a customizable process designed to meet the unique needs of each community.  If you have any questions or are interested in learning more, reach out to us.

Reginald Harris is a senior fellow at Children’s Funding Project.