Soundings: The unkindest cut

There’s been a lot of noise lately about how the federal budget sequestration has created backups at airports across the nation. Last week in a rare display of non-paralysis, Congress passed legislation that lets the Federal Aviation Administration shuffle money between accounts and avert furloughs for air controllers — at least through September.

Meanwhile, here on the Island, a program serving neither congressmen nor the lobbyists who influence them has suffered the blunt trauma of the sequester. The Early Childhood Center of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services got news of a deep cut in Head Start funding with only a few hours’ warning, in a conference call during school vacation week in February.

“It was a total surprise,” says Debbie Milne, program director for the Early Childhood Center. Suddenly Ms. Milne and Mary Brissette, the family services coordinator for the local Head Start Program, had to scramble to cut $20,000 from the budget for a fiscal year already three months gone.

Head Start on Martha’s Vineyard is a home-based, locally designed program serving 42 families. Half those families are below the poverty line and another quarter of them are near it. The program promotes school readiness for children between the ages of three and five; its approach is to focus the health of whole families.

The backbone of her staff, says Ms. Brissette, is the team of six Head Start home visitors who spend an hour and a half with each family, every week. Three of the six home visitors are parents themselves of children who’ve been through the Head Start program.

This year, thanks to the federal sequester, Head Start’s schedule of weekly home visits has been cut back from 10 months to eight. Home visits have been canceled from June 1 through September, and the home visitors will be put on furlough.

The Head Start parents, who participate in decisions about the program, said they wanted to deal with the budget cut this way. When they met to discuss their choices, says Ms. Milne, “The parents felt strongly about two things: They did not want to cut families out of the program, and they didn’t want any staff to lose their jobs.”

This strategy of absorbing the cuts by closing early and opening late has been taken by many Head Start programs across the country, says Ms. Brissette. It’s not like there’s much choice: “Our budget has already been tight for quite a few years,” she says, “and the only way to absorb a cut of this size is with salaries.”

Both program directors say they were struck by the way parents responded at the meeting when news of the budget cut was announced. Recalls Ms. Milne, “Nobody was saying, how dare they make this cut! It was all about, how do we solve this problem? It was about banding together and making this work.”

For a child already living in a rich social environment — say, a child whose parents can afford the tuition at a good Island preschool, the loss of a weekly home visit for two extra months wouldn’t be a terrible blow. But for many of the children in Head Start on Martha’s Vineyard, this program is one of their primary enrichments and a vital connection for their families to other parts of the social service network. Basic health screenings, parenting education, mental health services, and referrals for children with special needs are all part of the family services offered under the banner of Head Start.

“Because we’re working with three-year-olds,” says Ms. Brissette, “we’re often the first people to raise our hands and say, there’s something with this child that we need to take a closer look at.” Head Start, in short, is one of the earliest programs that identifies Island kids who could benefit from extra help.

Two years ago, the federal budget sequester was invented as a measure so noxious to both Democrats and Republicans — including, as it did, crude cuts to both human services and military spending — that its creators felt sure it would force legislators to the bargaining table. But when the deadline came, Washington had grown so deeply polarized that no alternative to the sequester could be found.

One of the problems here is a simple matter of human nature. We can see cause and effect at work when the two are closely connected – as in, stop paying air traffic controllers and the flights back up. But stop helping families raise healthy children and you might not see the results for years, in the form of fewer high school graduates and more dropouts.

There’s debate in some quarters about the value of programs like Head Start, but Debbie Milne and Mary Brissette are not among the doubters. Says Ms. Milne, “We’ve really tailored our program to meet the needs of this community. I think it’s one of the most powerful programs we have.”

Now, however, instead of concentrating on how to make their Head Start families healthier, happier, and more resilient, its directors have resigned themselves to hunkering down and weathering the cutbacks. “It’s so disappointing,” says Ms. Brissette. “This shouldn’t have to be our focus.”

Disappointing? That’s a polite way to say it. We should be outraged that our nation’s leaders are willing to make sure the planes fly on time but not to support a program that serves our most vulnerable citizens, the children who can’t speak for themselves.