Almost 30 years ago, Pauline Smith was lost, and to say her future was uncertain would be an understatement.
Abandoned by her husband, the single mom was left to care for three young children alone while searching for a career. With few options, Ms. Smith turned to Head Start, the federal preschool program for low-income families. It was a decision, she said, that changed all four of their lives — and more.
“Before Head Start I was in a bad place,” said Ms. Smith, who not only sent her children to Head Start but worked her way up from a volunteer position to become manager of the North Fork Head Start center in Southold. “Head Start was a place I could go where I felt like was accomplishing something for my family and for myself.”
Now, it’s Head Start’s future that is uncertain in the wake of sweeping federal budget cuts that come as part of what’s known in Washington, D.C., as the Sequester, which took effect March 1. The Head Start program, run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has seen a 5 percent cut in its funding, causing centers to layoff employees, shorten semesters or consolidate and close facilities.
Friday was the last day of spring semester classes at the Southold facility, ending two weeks sooner than in previous years due to the cuts. The center will reopen in mid-October, more than a month later than the typical start to the semester.
“We’re blessed we’re still here because we thought we wouldn’t make it past June 1,” said Carol Burnett of Jamesport, a community outreach recruitment coordinator for Long Island Head Start. Ms. Burnett had thought the center would close even earlier this spring.
North Fork Head Start employees have also felt the pain of the cutbacks.
Susan Cutrone, who has worked as a teacher at the Southold center for nine years, will be furloughed until October, a month longer than normal, leaving her and many of her co-workers struggling to find additional work in the meantime, she said.
“You’re not going to support a household on unemployment,” she said.
Ms. Cutrone’s son also attended the Southold facility before kindergarten. She said she knows first-hand that the cuts will have a significant impact on the low-income families the center serves.
“Since we work so much with the community it was hard to tell parents we’re closing earlier,” she said. “Parents are not simply inconvenienced by the short semester. They are struggling and they’re are up against a wall.”
The shortened semesters are leaving parents scrambling to find alternative childcare.
A baby sitter, Ms. Burnett said, would fail to provide the education, safety and socialization children need during their developmental years. Many of the families that rely on Head Start’s services are at or below the poverty line. Those who cannot afford to stay home from work may try to find an inexpensive — which often also means young and inexperienced — baby sitter as an alternative to the program, Ms. Burnett said.
“Physically, emotionally, we don’t know what type of situation our kids will end up in,” she said.
For the 23 Long Island-based Head Start centers, the cuts meant a loss of $800,000 annually from its budget of $16 million, according to Ms. Burnett. Head Start serves 1,675 children in Suffolk County and 72 at the Southold center.
Hundreds more are on a waiting list for services.
No centers on Long Island are closing due to the sequester cuts, Ms. Burnett said, though regional Head Starts elsewhere in the U.S. have closed and consolidated centers.
“People don’t realize the need for Head Start programs,” she said. “These cuts will be particularly catastrophic.”
Sequestration set in place automatic spending cuts that came as part of the Budget Control Act signed by President Obama in 2011. The cuts are aimed at reducing the federal government’s $1.2 deficit by slashing funding for government departments by billions over the next nine years, according to news reports. The measure went into effect because elected leaders in Washington couldn’t agree on a long-term budget reduction plan.
The cuts were designed to be so painful to Americans that elected leaders would have to act to prevent them. They did not.
“There are many harmful effects of sequestration on Long Island, including furloughs and job losses at major employers like the 106th Air Rescue Wing at Gabreski Air Force Base in Westhampton and Stony Brook University,” said Oliver Longwell, a spokesman for Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton). “Sequestration is an unnecessary drag on our economic recovery when we should instead be promoting growth with jobs.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson first established Head Start in 1965 as a part of his War on Poverty. It is the only program that survived that effort.
For nearly 50 years, Head Start has helped educate, feed and provide health coverage for low-income children and their families.
Ms. Burnett said the cuts would hurt not only those benefitting directly but the country’s long-term prosperity as well.
“Without access to Head Start there is no safety net in place to help these children be ready to enter and succeed in kindergarten and assist their families in moving toward self-sufficiency,” Ms. Burnett said. “Head Start not only changes lives, but saves lives as well.”
Head Start children are 12 percent less likely to be charged with a crime as adolescents and adults and are more likely to graduate from high school, according Ms. Burnett. The program also provides nutritious meals and resources for special needs children.
When a child enrolls in Head Start, steps are taken to assess the child’s health to identify any concerns, Ms. Burnett explained. The screening can identify children who may need further assessment to determine if they need hearing aids, mental health services or special education. The screening process is particularly important for children with disabilities.
Ms. Burnett is calling on politicians to solve the problem she felt was created in Washington.
“Elected representatives need to come up with a plan that addresses our long term deficits without trying to balance the budget on the backs of children and families that had nothing to do with getting us to this point in the first place,” she said.
Mr. Bishop said he would support legislation giving the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services the flexibility to redirect funding to Head Start from other areas in the department’s budget. TO date, however, no legislation of that kind has been introduced.