State per Child Spending Differs by a Factor of Three

How much states spend on children’s health, education, income supports and social services differs greatly according to a just-released Urban Institute report, titled Unequal Playing Field.

The top spending state – Vermont – charted per child expenditures of $13,430, three times as much as Utah’s per child spending of $4,594. The national average was $7,923. Spending in each state was  adjusted for the state cost of living.

Generally, the top spending states, with per-child figures over $10,000, are in the Northeast and the states spending the least, less than $8,000, were generally located in the South and the West.

Furthermore, the report found that states that rank higher on spending generally rank higher on health and education outcomes, although the report cautions the association is not necessarily causal. “[O]ther factors, such as family incomes, may contribute to both state spending and child outcomes, but it suggests a possible connection between the two.”1

The report’s top findings also include:

  • Latino and American Indian or Alaskan Native children are much more likely than non-Latino white and black children to live in low-spending states.
  • Population growth in low-spending states could lower per-child spending in the future, with the highest child population growth expected in low-spending states such as Texas and Florida. For the 35 states projected to have population growth, the additional spending needed to maintain their current per-child spending is $24.4 billion per year by 2030.

The report also explores several policy questions:

  • If we accept that seniors in different states receive the same minimum retirement benefit, should we accept such varying investment in children?
  • Should federal block grants be avoided because they could lock in current spending patterns and the differences between states?
  • Should federal resources be targeted at states with low capacity for raising their own revenue or states that will experience population growth?


1 Julia B. Isaacs with Sara Edelstein. Unequal Playing Field? State Differences in Spending on Children in 2013. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute, May 2017, p. 10.