A Deeper Dive into Sequestration’s Impact on Head Start

July 12th, 2013 at 7:00 pm

Each Monday, we run a series of links to articles showing the impact of sequestration across the land.  Often, these are localized impacts that don’t readily show up in GDP, enabling the chin-strokers on cable TV (yes, I’m one) to protest that the budget cuts have had no impact at all.

As our weekly links reveal, that’s wrong, but here’s a much deeper dive into the impact of cuts to Head Start, the pre-school program for low-income kids (from a new HuffPo series on the sequester’s impacts).  The piece follows a few of the parents and kids directly affected by the closures, providing a tangible feel of what it’s like for a low-income parent to lose this important service: “parents benefitting from the program say it keeps their lives afloat.”

At least three things happen when you cut these programs (and this isn’t my first post on these cuts).  First, some kids lose their slots, interrupting not only basic early learning, but also nutritional and medical services.  Nationally, an advocacy group expects 65,000 slots to be victims of the sequester.

Second, Head Start staff lose jobs, about 11,500 nationally.  (I was moved by the mom, who upon being told by staff that her Kansas program was closing first has a good cry and then asks the staff about their jobs, which were also gone).

Third, working parents in particular lose a vital support system, and if they want to keep their jobs—and remember, these are low-income families–immediately start digging for alternatives to care for their kids during work.

In fact, when the Kansas program closed, a mom of one of the affected kids asked her Congressman, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), for help.  He said “no,” but:

…encouraged Reynolds to try to raise the money herself. Since local Head Start officials have significant discretion over how to handle sequestration cuts, they might be open to private funding. Sure enough, they were, provided that the revenue stream would be sustained over a long period of time.

Reynolds has been looking for a rich benefactor with a soft spot for disadvantaged children ever since. While she’s yet to find her saving patron, it has not been for lack of determination.

So, here’s how I read this.  Policies (deregulation, supply-side tax cuts, de-unionization) and broad economic developments (globalization, tech change) have led to historically high levels of income and wealth concentration.  In our highly monetized political system, this means wealthy individuals and coalitions can buy the policy set that protects their wealth, most notably lower taxes, especially on their assets.

This, in turns, generates concerns about budget deficits, often amped by the very same representatives of wealth, like the heavily corporate “Fix the Debt” group.  But since tax increases and entitlements are politically off-limits, pressure is created to cut spending on discretionary programs like Head Start, despite the fact that these are not the source of fiscal pressures.

When the beneficiaries of Head Start ask for help, they’re told to go to the top 1% for help, and the circle is closed.

As the article points out, public schools are picking up some of the slack, but as they too face budget constraints, this will be a limited relief valve.

Meanwhile, the most recent read on the budget deficit, from the White House Budget Office, shows the deficit has declined from about 10% of GDP in 2009 to an expected 4.4% next year and dropping after that.  Moreover, as noted, the $8 billion Head Start program is unquestionably not the source of future fiscal pressures.  That would be healthcare spending, which itself has been growing significantly slower than in recent years.

In other words, this is just Congressional dysfunction at work.  I’ve written those words so many times, I fear they fail to resonate as we’re now inured to such fecklessness.  But when one reflects on what they mean to these folks directly hurt by the sequester, and for no good fiscal reason, I very much hope it ignites your anger as it does mine, regarding both the unjust inequality cycle described above and the service cuts which are a microcosm of that cycle.

What to do with that anger?  The solution is clearly a political one.  That moniker “Rep.” used above stands for “representative,” and from the perspective of the families, kids, and workers in the story, it is clearly a misnomer.

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