Editor’s note: In 2013, 20,000 children lost access to Head Start during the federal shutdown. This disruption in services followed drastic cuts to Head Start’s budget as a result of sequestration, which reduced by 57,000 the number of available slots in the Head Start and Early Head Start programs for the upcoming fiscal year.
Funds for Head Start were restored by Congress in 2014, but tensions during recent budget negotiations have left Head Start families bracing themselves once again. The temporary solution reached by Congress would maintain funding at current levels through December 11. But if Congress doesn’t reach an agreement on the budget before then, Head Start programs could be subject to massive sequestration cuts, and vulnerable families may be without access to services.
Victoria Hilt of Bremerton, WA was homeless and six months pregnant when she turned to Head Start. She describes her family’s experience with the program and the impact sequestration had on her community.
When I was six-months pregnant I left an unsafe living situation and became homeless. I went to my local WIC office, where I received information on prenatal care and nursing and was directed to an Early Head Start program. The WIC office told me the program would help me learn how to best care for myself in order to have a safe pregnancy and prepare to be my child’s first teacher. In the end, Early Head Start and Head Start would do that for me and so much more.
Since birth, my daughter, now age four, has grown up in the Head Start buildings with exposure to the same staff over that time period. The program has taught me about many aspects of healthy child development—from routine visits with the pediatrician and dentists, to positive father-daughter relationships, to social-emotional and cognitive development. My daughter and I have learned not only in the classroom, but also through home visits, parent-child activities, policy council meetings, board meetings, and everyday interactions with staff. Early Head Start also connected me to the Kitsap Community Resources Housing Solutions Center, where I was able to find temporary housing and, ultimately, the home where my daughter and I have now lived for four years.
I’m hardly alone. Throughout the nation, Head Start and Early Head Start are helping struggling families—and the communities where they live—build a better future.
When sequestration hit my hometown of Bremerton, Washington, Head Start had to cut the number of slots available for children. Many of these families had no other options for high quality care. The staff also took a cut to their benefits in order to maintain the high quality of services provided to the families who were still able to attend. These cuts disrupted the continuity of care for the children. Some “non-essential” personnel such as kitchen aids and training aids were let go. Other employees were asked to take on more tasks without a pay increase. Job insecurity made some staff members seek employment elsewhere—who could blame them? Federally-funded jobs were on shaky ground to say the least. The agency has now reduced staff down to the bare bones needed to meet the existing performance standards. If the sequester hits again, the program will have no other option than to further reduce the number of slots available. This bad policy is a disservice to the future of our community and many others: When a family’s foundation or a community’s assets are weakened or cut, progress is slowed or even halted.
I can’t even imagine where my daughter and I would be had we not had this incredible resource available to us.
Prior to Head Start, I was struggling to find my voice and my direction—homeless, pregnant, and sometimes hopeless. Through the program, I not only found a home, but I also attended finance classes and learned how to provide for my family on a budget. I learned the importance of self-care, and how this sets an example for my daughter. Using the skills we learned through the program, I am successfully co-parenting with my daughter’s father. Engaging in Head Start has also reignited my passion for learning, helping others, and advocating for policies that help people build a better life just like I have. I am back in school, working on completing a degree in political science so that I can pursue a career in grant and policy writing. I’m very involved in early learning and welfare policy in my community, and am interested in perhaps running for elected office someday so that I may continue contributing to my community in a positive, powerful way.
But that’s down the road. Right now I’m concerned about this: Head Start might not be available to me and my daughter and too many other families if Congress doesn’t act soon. If my daughter can’t attend Head Start, I worry that she will fall behind developmentally, and that I will not have a high quality program to send her to while I pursue my educational and employment goals and forge a path toward financial independence.
Head Start is crucial to families and communities that are most at-risk. Take it away, and you are simply making a life on the brink more precarious.