Head Start is another casualty of government shutdown

OPINION - Head Start is on the chopping block? Is nothing sacred?...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Head Start is on the chopping block? Is nothing sacred?

With every passing day of the government shutdown, Americans are realizing just how much they need government.  And they are learning which government programs are falling by the wayside.  One of these programs is Head Start, a program for low-income children that disproportionately benefits black children.

According to the Office of Head Start website, which is not updated due to the shutdown, Head Start is “a federal program that promotes the school readiness of children ages birth to 5 from low-income families by enhancing their cognitive, social and emotional development.”

The program services more than 1 million low-income children each year by providing them meals and health care and getting them ready for elementary school.

And Head Start is a comprehensive program that identifies the neediest children, breaks down the obstacles to their success, and encourages parental involvement in their child’s education. Parents are allowed the time to pursue employment or higher education.  Moreover, children who are enrolled in Head Start are more likely to graduate from high school and college, and not wind up in prison.

The impact is clear.

On October 1, 23 programs serving nearly 19,000 children in 11 states were to be funded, and are expected to lose that funding.  Four programs serving 3,200 children closed this week—including agencies in Talladega, Alabama (898 children); Bridgeport, Connecticut (1,019 children); Tallahassee, Florida (378 children) and Prentiss, Mississippi (900 children) near Jackson, in a county with a poverty rate of 25 percent—with 11 more programs set to close on Friday unless funding is restored.

The devastation does not include the loss of Head Start services to 57,000 children and families as a result of the mandatory 5 percent, $405 million budget cuts tied to the federal sequester.  Those cuts included trimming 1.3 million days from the Head Start center calendars, and laying off or cutting pay for over 18,000 employees.

For struggling families who are already on the edge, and for a nation plunging deeper into poverty and childhood poverty, the effects are painful.  Without childcare, where do these parents leave their children when they have to go to work?

The benefits of the program are clear.  For every dollar invested in Head Start, $7 returns in the form of stable families, better pay and employment, less crime, lower welfare enrollment and fewer children held back in school.  The cuts speak to America’s lack of commitment to investing in early childhood education.  Before the shutdown, President Obama was pushing a plan to provide preschool to all low- and middle-income 4 year olds.

Of the children who benefit from the highly successful Head Start, nearly 40 percent are Latino and nearly 30 percent are black.  Perhaps that is why Tea Party conservatives hate the program—which is part of the Great Society legacy— and even claim it is a failure that should be eliminated.  After all, the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy had been to appeal to disaffected whites unhappy with the black gains of the civil rights movement.  The GOP succeeded by opposing social programs and supporting tax cuts and smaller government on the grounds that “blacks get hurt worse than whites,” as the late GOP strategist Lee Atwater once said.

With the Tea Party, we reap the whirlwind of the Southern Strategy, and with it a wholesale attack on Obamacare, food stamps, any program that helps millions, and programs such as Head Start which helps children of all races, but disproportionately assists children of color.

Meanwhile, Congress is getting paid during this crippling government shutdown, as federal workers have their paychecks delayed.  So-called “nonessential workers” are sent on unpaid leave, national parks are closed, and services ranging from food safety and flu shots to small business loans and kids’ cancer treatment will have to shut down.  Then there’s the possibility of the U.S. defaulting on its debt.  And we’ll see what happens to the federal court system if the money runs out.

Most of all, the Tea Party Congress has decided that low-income children, disproportionately black, are nonessential, as Head Start is gutted across the country.  If you hate government you might think this is a good thing, but if you’re like most of us you wonder what hope remains when we cut investments in our children.

This shutdown could last for weeks; nobody knows.  But it is abundantly clear that the most vulnerable among us will truly suffer.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove