In the ongoing budget battle between Democrats and Republicans over which programs to cut, Head Start, the popular preschool program serving nearly a million lower income children, have come under attack from Congressional Republicans. In the Senate, Republicans voted for a $2 billion dollar cut to President Obama’s proposed 2011 Head Start budget of $8.2 billion dollars. That GOP budget plan failed in the Senate, but President Obama scolded them last week at a press conference, saying that Congress shouldn’t try to find budget savings in Head Start, because “that’s not where the money is”.
But the bigger question is: In a world where millionaires are getting billions in tax cuts, why are Republicans going after funding for poor children in the name of fiscal responsibility? In a budget filled with subsidies to farmers, defense contracts for weapons the military doesn’t want and need, why go after the children? To understand their motivation, you have to go back to their conservative view of government and how it doesn’t include empowering the poor, even if they’re children.
Head Start, a program born in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and Great Society, was designed to help break the cycle of poverty through early education. Over the past five decades, millions of low-income students have received pre-school education, and the subsequent tests have proved that once these students entered elementary school, they were more advanced than their peers who didn’t attend Head Start. But critics of Head Start point to other tests that say any advantages seen in Head Start students soon dissipates in elementary school.
The narrative that Head Start is a program which doesn’t quantitatively help young low-income children, fit neatly into conservative dogma that government can’t create social change among the poor. Limited government types in the Republican Party have long targeted Great Society programs like the welfare system, the food stamp program, and Head Start as being huge wastes of taxpayer money. Republicans often protest that government shouldn’t be in the business of social engineering, and that individuals should be empowered to make changes that benefit them. And that government, as Ronald Reagan so famously proclaimed, “is the problem.”
The problem with that reasoning is that Republicans don’t seem to have that same laissez faire attitude when it comes to programs designed to benefit the wealth. When millionaires are given tax cuts, like the extension of the Bush tax cuts program last December, the government is making a bet that millionaires will do better than they with the tax revenue. The promise is that these millionaires, who everyone acknowledge aren’t paying their fair share, will use this money to stimulate the economy and grow jobs.
Yet the problem is that most economists say that tax cuts are the least stimulative program the government can endorse. In fact, compared to a Great Society program like food stamps, which the Congressional Budget Office says stimulates the economy at a rate of $1.73 (meaning a dollar of food stamp dollars cycles through the economy at that rate), tax cuts to the wealth only returns a paltry .27 cents. So on the face, giving money away to the wealthy would seem to be a waste of money, while giving money to the poor would seem to be economically smart. But not through Republican eyes.
The billions in government funds that are allocated either to the poor or the rich come with a moral conclusion attached. The poor are thought by Republicans to be undeserving of taxpayer funds because in a capitalist society, they don’t produce anything. To not produce something is to not have worth. And if you don’t have worth, then you’re not worthy of receiving taxpayer funds from the people who do produce in society. Why should a Republican vote to give money to the poor children of non-productive citizens for a program like Head Start? It doesn’t matter to them that by educating young students, and you may potentially create a productive citizen, what’s most important is that these poor children, and their parents, are not productive now. It is not their responsibility to invest in people. It is the individual’s responsibility, even if those individuals are in poverty.
That’s why it’s better to argue, as a Republican, that even if giving taxpayer funds to the wealthy is not good government policy, these are people who deserve this money. In their eyes, the wealth contribute to society by producing something, and as Republican leaders like to say, the money they’re receiving is “their” money and not the governments, even the tax rates mean that the wealthy receive a disproportionate amount compared to other Americans. These are the productive people, and therefore, the morally worthy.
And that’s why Head Start, a relatively inexpensive program that gives lower income students of all races a chance at a positive start in life, is ripe for cutting. To Republicans, the children of Head Start are not really worthy of taxpayer funds, and represent a continuing failure of an ill conceived and wasteful government program that needed to be eliminated. And as the New York Times reported, Lisa Murkowski, Republican Senator from Alaska had been lauded in the past for her support of Alaska Head Starts, but when it came time to vote for Head Start cuts, she voted with her fellow Republicans to slash the Head Start budget by $2 billion.
“I did not get caught up in the individual cuts,” Senator Murkowski told the New York Times.
Indeed. When it comes to programs designed to affect poverty and childhood education for the poor, Republicans rarely think about what individual cuts mean to these demographics. And that’s why it’s so easy for them to disregard children in Head Start. They’re not worthy in their eyes.