A key anti-poverty program from the civil rights era is feeling the strain from Congress’ sequestration battle.
Head Start, an early childhood development program that serves more than 2,000 children from low-income families in Erie County, will admit 93 fewer children when the fall session opens countywide Sept. 9, because of about $1 million in sequestration reductions.
Almost 900 children are already on waiting lists to get into Head Start, which serves children ages 3 and 4, or Early Head Start, which helps children six weeks of age to 3, and pregnant mothers.
Most of the county’s Head Start programs, which this fall are expected to serve 2,095 children, are administered by the Community Action Organization, along with Holy Cross Head Start and Bethel Head Start.
“We’re only meeting the needs of one out of eight children who are age and income eligible, according to the census,” said L. Nathan Hare, president of the Community Action Organization. “So now sequester shows up and says we want you to serve less of those kids.”
Hare said the federal Department of Health and Human Services informed the agency about the cuts in May. That forced the organization to reduce child participation in the summer program by one-third and to eliminate transportation for a low-income population where car ownership is not common.
The cuts to Head Start have resulted in about 20 layoffs, and about 200 staff members have seen their hours reduced or have had to take furloughs.
In addition, the agency has been forced to curtail a wide range of services provided to other family members, from health and nutrition to employment counseling, resolution of foster care issues, resources for learning disabilities and help with energy needs.
“When you’re talking about 93 children, you’re probably talking about 400 to 500 human beings in all who are being impacted,” Hare said.
Yesenia L. Pimentel, a single mother of a 3-year-old, said she is on pins and needles over whether her daughter will be able to replace another child if a coveted slot opens up.
“I’ve been on edge for the whole summer. I can’t afford child care, and it’ll affect me financially because I will have to stay home from work. This is people’s safe haven, including mine,” Pimentel said.
She said reductions in Head Start will force families to not be able to work, stay on assistance longer and will harm children’s development.
Aurora Roldan, whose child graduated from Head Start, said she appreciated what the program did for her daughter.
“As a parent I loved it, not only because she didn’t get stuck at home but because the teachers were wonderful and taught her so much,” Roldan said. “What’s happening now is sad, because a lot of families who look forward to Head Start won’t be able to have that for their children.”
Hare said he can’t help but find irony in the attention being given to the 50th anniversary of the march in the nation’s capital that produced Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
“People in control of legislation are trying to take apart much of what was pulled together by Lyndon Johnson and the ‘War on Poverty,’ from which Head Start was born in 1965,” he said. “We see so many people who are successful because of the changes that took place in the mid-’60s. Now, everything that can possibly be done to undo that is being done by people in Congress. It is so disillusioning.”
Chelsea White, the Community Action Organization’s program support manager, said the $30 million budget for Head Start, which operates from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, serves the City of Buffalo, Amherst, Springville, Gowanda, Derby, Lackawanna, Depew, Blasdell, Cheektowaga, Tonawanda and Akron.
A family of four can earn no more than $23,550 to be eligible for Head Start services. For a family of two, the limit is $15,510.
“We’re truly affecting the neediest of the needy families with the sequestration cuts,” White said.
Pimentel said Congress must make it possible for families who need Head Start to get it.
“I’m really hoping this sequester will be revisited by the end of this year, and it isn’t something that continues next year, because this is really hard,” she said.