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Poor Preschoolers Suffer During Government Shutdown

Head Start's early-childhood education programs have been devastated by federal sequestration and this week's events

Children from the Head Start program rally outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
October 4, 2013 12:25 PM ET

Head Start, the federally funded early-childhood education program serving low-income children across the country, was dealt a major blow earlier this week after the government shutdown left 23 of its local programs without grant money necessary to provide services. In a statement, the National Head Start Association (NHSA) said that roughly 19,000 children could be affected. This is not the first time this year that Congress' forced austerity has directly impacted the nation's most impoverished preschoolers; Head Start has already lost 57,000 spots due to the sequester and faces ongoing budget cuts unless Congress acts to restore its funding.

The 23 Head Start programs in question were set to receive grants on October 1st, the first day of the shutdown. "We know for sure that five of those programs have closed their doors already, and others think they can stay open through Friday," says NHSA spokesperson Sally Aman. "Still others may have a few days next week. But no one is going to be able to continue operating without their federal dollars." What's worse, Aman says, is that if the shutdown continues, a whole new cohort of programs set to receive their funding on November 1st could then be in the same situation. Head Start includes 1,600 programs nationwide, all of which receive grants on different schedules.

See Why Republicans' Efforts to Punish Poor People By Shutting Down the Government Will Fail in the End

Aman described the this week's losses as a "double whammy" after the sequestration-imposed budget cuts that began in March, forcing every Head Start program in the country to reduce its budget by 5.27 percent and ultimately cut tens of thousands of spots for children. If sequestration continues, those 5 percent cuts are set to take place every year over the next 10 years – meaning that 50 percent of Head Start's budget would ultimately be eliminated. "It's just simply not sustainable," says Aman. She emphasizes that every program is already operating on a bare-bones budget, with nowhere left to take the money from. "We could eliminate one of the meals, or transportation," she says, "but that's a problem because then [the children] can't get there."

Nutritious meals are one aspect of Head Start's comprehensive approach to early learning. The programs also provide health screenings, dental screenings and social support to families. Data from 2012 shows that, upon completing Head Start, more children had health insurance, immunizations and a medical and dental home than did at the start of the program. Almost 50,000 of the 1 million families served that year experienced homelessness, but 36 percent of those found housing in the program year. Twenty-six percent of families received adult education or job training services. Children who complete the program improve in their writing, early reading and applied problem-solving skills, their social and behavioral skills, and demonstrate a more positive approach to learning than they did upon entry. Head Start also serves a high rate of children with disabilities – 10 percent of their yearly enrollment is reserved for such children – and helps families obtain services to support them. In order to qualify, households must be at or below the federal poverty line. Says Aman, "Head Start serves the poorest of the poor in our country."

Carolina Community Action Agency, which serves four counties in South Carolina, was one of the programs set to receive a federal grant on October 1st. Its Head Start program is closing its doors today, leaving 864 children without service. "We serve families who may otherwise not be able to afford quality childcare," says Linnie Miller, the agency's Head Start director. She says many of the rural communities served by the program don't have any other options for affordable childcare or school districts that offer Pre-K. Parents in the community, especially those working or going to school, rely on the services that Head Start provides. "It's not like it's going to take a couple of months to trickle down to them," says Miller. "The impact is immediate." The closures will also furlough 130 staff members across the agency, including teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria and social workers.

Walter Kellogg, executive director of the South Carolina agency, says even staying open this week was difficult: "We should have ended things on October 1st, because we don't have any money." Instead, he says, they utilized a line of credit to finish out the week so that they could communicate with parents about their options and give staff time to prepare. As a temporary solution, the agency is redirecting funds from another program it operates that offers funding for basic childcare for working parents. Kellogg emphasizes that it's a short-term solution that leaves children without the crucial support and education that Head Start provides. "All we can do," he says, "is wait."

If Congress puts forward a continuing resolution that restores funding going back to October 1st, children will be able to return to that agency's programs, and the agency would be able to pay back its staff. On a national level, Aman hopes that Congress acts not only to restore the funding loss caused by the shutdown, but also ends the sequester to prevent the onslaught of devastating cuts that Head Start now faces. "We have a lot of hope that our funding levels will be adequate enough to serve the kids in our programs, never mind the ones on the waiting list," she says. Head Start serves about 1 million children and pregnant women a year, but there are over 6 million children under age six living in poverty in the United States. That's 25 percent of the national population at that age – and the number goes up to almost 50 percent if you include low-income families that are technically above the poverty line, but still struggle to meet basic needs. For as long as the shutdown and sequestration continue, it is the youngest and poorest in the nation who will pay the price.

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