Monday, August 26, 2013

The Impact of the Sequester on Head Start

The on-going effects of the federal sequester are continuing to hit low-income children and families the hardest. As a result of the mandatory $400 million cut, Head Start programs this school year will eliminate services for 57,000 children, 1.3 million days from Head Start Center calendars will be cut, and 18,000 employees will have to undergo layoffs and reduced pays. These changes will affect tens of thousands of poor families across the country who rely on Head Start for early learning programs, day care, and a network of social services and medical care.

Some Head Start centers are trying to minimize the impact as much as possible by cutting administrative costs and support services, but the effects are still unfavorable. For example, Head Start in Arlington County, Virginia is reducing their bus services this year, which means that many children will no longer have a reliable form of transportation to make it to class. Other Head Start programs are shortening their school year or the school day. The latest figures show that 18,000 program hours will be cut next year by centers that will start later in the day or end earlier. The cuts also force Head Start programs to lay off staff, reduce hours, and reduce benefits.

While some places are reducing services and staff, most programs have had to completely cut their services to children. In California and Texas, services were cut to 10,000 children combined. Virginia has trimmed nearly 1,200 spots, Maryland cut 460, and D.C. is reducing participants by 100. Nationwide, these cuts compromise 6,000 children in Early Head Start, which is designated for infants and toddlers up to age 3, and another 51,000 in Head Start programs. 

Some locations have been able to use local funds to compensate the drop in federal funding to maintain the level of service, and more affluent communities or outside organizations were able to fill-in for the loss, which is the primary reason why the budget cuts were not as dramatic as the initial projections; however, these solutions are not sustainable.

In addition to the important educational benefits for children in Head Start, the program also allows low-income families a form of quality daycare that they otherwise would not be able to access or afford. The exorbitant costs of daycare force many parents, and mothers in particular, to decide whether or not working is even affordable. Many women cannot be assured of both working and making a decent income after taxes and child care costs. For instance, daycare can cost up to 30% of one income in a two-salary couple and is the greatest expense for low-income households surpassing both food and housing. In New York, costs of daycare can average $25,000-$30,000 per child—higher than the cost of a year of public college.

The effects of sequestration on Head Start programs are devastating for low-income children and families nationwide.  It is essential to keep in mind that public investments in the health, welfare, and education of young children and their families have significant positive returns on investment, but the sequester is clearly eliminating lifelines.

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