A U.S. preschool program for low-income families allowed single mother Kelly Burford to take a $7.25-an-hour job as a department store clerk in Maryland. Her son, Bradyn, 2, spent the day with friends listening to stories, singing and drawing pictures -- at no cost to Burford.
That ended in June, when Bradyn’s school in Taneytown, seventy miles north of Washington, closed after losing $103,000 because of automatic government spending cuts. Without support from the federal Head Start program, Burford, 35, said she had to quit her job and has seen her son’s progress slip.
“The teachers were really good -- he was learning a lot,” she said. “Now, he’s fallen back.”
While President Barack Obama advocates expanded education for all children under five, the budget deal he cut with Republicans in Congress is throwing poor children out of existing programs. The across-the-board reductions, made through a process known as sequestration, removed about $400 million from Head Start this year, the deepest cut in dollar terms since its 1965 creation.
As a result, about 60,000 slots in the preschool program for poor children are expected to disappear, according to the National Head Start Association, an Alexandria, Virginia-based nonprofit that advocates more funding for the program. The cuts must take place by the Sept. 30 end of the U.S. fiscal year.
“This is the wrong time to cut back support for low-income families,” said W. Steven Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “There’s a disinvestment in kids when they’re in their preschool years and we will see the consequences of this play out over the rest of their lives.”
Ted Froats, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said the administration doesn’t yet know how many children will be cut from Head Start this year. The program served 1.14 million children in 2012, according to HHS. Grants were distributed to about 1,600 entities, including preschool owners, nonprofits and local government agencies.
At least two cities, Chicago and Baltimore, are using their own resources to offset much of this year’s budget gap.
In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel ordered the city to cut costs elsewhere to prevent the elimination of as many as 1,000 places for the city’s children. Baltimore made up for about half of the $1.6 million that was cut, primarily by not filling vacant city jobs.
Head Start recipients in rural areas said it’s difficult to shift resources to save slots for poor children.
Ramona Codling, the director of Head Start for Southwest Georgia Community Action Council in Moultrie, said she hasn’t found a way to make up for a $700,000 funding cut. Her program can help 2,353 kids, 90 less than during the last school year.
“The big cities have the possibility of helping,” she said. “But when you’re in a rural area, everybody’s hurting.”
Meanwhile, slots in big-city preschool classrooms are disappearing.
In Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Dallas and Phoenix, more than 1,700 slots have been eliminated, according to local administrators contacted by Bloomberg.
Neither lawmakers nor Obama said they wanted about $85 billion in sequestration cuts to take effect. They were included in a 2011 agreement to raise the federal debt limit and were meant to be so unpalatable that both parties would come up with an alternative plan. Efforts to reach an agreement failed and 5 percent cuts in many discretionary programs began on March 1.
Measured in Years
The full impact of sequestration will take years to measure, said Steve Bell, the senior director of Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, a non-profit in Washington founded by former Democratic and Republican Senate leaders.
“This is not like a government shutdown,” he said. “This is much more insidious because it’s slower, it’s cumulative, and it’s more diffuse.”
For some Head Start programs, the pain arrived almost immediately. In May, Audubon Area Community Services, a Kentucky nonprofit that runs programs in rural parts of the state, made personnel cuts that resulted in the elimination of slots for more than 170 children, said Aubrey Nehring, the chief executive officer of the organization.
Nehring also cut 42 jobs, or about 15 percent of the staff, to make up for a $750,000 budget cut. About three-quarters of the parents with children in the organization’s program are working or in school.
“It’s a huge hit,” he said. “We’ve had a number of parents who’ve had to find other childcare, or quit work or drop out of school.”
Head Start was created under President Lyndon Johnson, as part of the “War on Poverty” he declared in the 1965 State of the Union address. The program began with 560,000 children in the first summer and provided classes, medical and dental care and mental health services.
In 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services spent $8 billion on Head Start, which provides grants to help children attending private and publicly-run centers. In April, because of the mandatory budget cuts, the department said it would reduce spending by 5 percent, to about $7.6 billion.
Community Teamwork Inc., a Lowell, Massachusetts non-profit, shut down three classes because it lost $350,000, reducing the number of children it serves by 85 to about 600.
Bernadette Donovan’s twin children just graduated from Community Teamwork’s class in Billerica, outside Boston, one of the three that was closed. Donovan, 37, a single mother of four, said volunteering in the classroom allowed her to log hours needed to qualify as a certified teacher.
“Everyone who was in the program, this was their only option,” said Donovan, who’s looking for a job. “It was a big loss.”
In Taneytown, in a rural area of central Maryland, the Catholic Charities of Baltimore eliminated eight slots for children 2 and under.
Burford, the Maryland mother who was forced to quit her job, said she’s now relying on help from her parents to pay $200 a week -- about what she was making at her minimum-wage job --to place Bradyn in a nursery school while she looks for a new job.
“I struggle from day to day,” she said.