Cities adapt family services to economy
Nearly half of the cities in a recently released survey by the Washington, D.C.-based National League of Cities (NLC) reported spending more on services for families and children than they spent five years ago. But that does not mean the recent fiscal woes of local governments have not affected such initiatives.
For example, the percentage of respondents who said they were spending more was significantly lower than in a similar NLC survey released in 1996, and about half of the cities said that cuts in federal and state aid during the last two years have hampered their ability to provide family and child programs. Also, cities have been forced to rely less on general municipal revenues to fund the services and to use alternative sources.
The survey was conducted from November 2002 through March 2003, and its findings are summarized in a report entitled “Strengthening Families in America’s Cities: Municipal Finance for Child and Family Services,” which was released in May. The report is the latest in a series by NLC that examines conditions affecting children, youth and families in American cities.
Forty-seven percent of the surveyed cities said that they were spending more on services for children and families than they were five years ago, and 42 percent noted they were spending the same amount. Eleven percent said they were spending less. In the 1996 survey, 57 percent of the respondents said they were spending more on the services than five years ago, while 36 percent indicated they were spending the same amount, and 7 percent said they were spending less.
Fifty-three percent of cities said that the allocation of state aid during the preceding two years had decreased their ability to provide children and family services, and 26 percent said the distribution had no impact. Eleven percent said the allocation had benefited their provision of such services.
The results were similar for questions about federal aid. Forty-six percent of the respondents said the distribution of federal aid during the past couple years had decreased their ability to provide programs for family and children. Meanwhile, 29 percent said it had no effect, and 14 percent said federal-aid allocation had helped provide such programs.
The recent fiscal stress suffered by local governments has driven cities to find alternative ways to fund programs. As in the 1996 survey, general municipal revenues remain the primary funding source of the programs in the 2004 survey. However the reliance on such funds has decreased. In 1996, eight out of 10 cities said they used the revenues to fund such programs; in the new survey, the percentage dropped to 73 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of respondents who say they use service fees to fund the programs rose from 54 percent in the 1996 survey to 60 percent in the 2004 survey. A higher percentage of cities than in the 1996 survey also said they were using impact/developer fees and dedicated municipal taxes.
Despite the recent financial pressure, the surveyed cities gave themselves fairly good marks for their family and child services. Seven percent of the respondents said they have done an excellent job addressing the needs of families and children during the preceding year. Forty-one percent indicated they had done a good job, 36 percent a fair job and 13 percent a poor job.