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Editorial: Sequester Victims; Flyers Spared But Preschoolers Aren’t

At the end of last month, Congress moved swiftly to eliminate flight delays caused by the $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester. As we noted at the time, there was remarkable unanimity on the need to end furloughs of air traffic controllers, which had snarled flights nationwide. The Senate passed the bill unanimously, while in the House, the vote was 361-41. Among the few dissenters, along with Vermont’s Peter Welch, was Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the House minority whip, who noted that, “Seventy thousand children will be kicked out of Head Start. Nothing in this bill deals with them.”

No, nothing did, and just about nobody in Washington seems to care very much. Here we are a couple of weeks later, with the flying public made whole by congressional action while, as staff writer Ben Conarck reported in Friday’s Valley News, Head Start programs throughout Vermont and New Hampshire are closing early for the year and preparing for other cuts.

On the New Hampshire side of the river, Tri-County Community Action, a nonprofit social services agency, closed preschool programs serving 378 children at 11 locations, including Lebanon, two weeks early after the state lost $733,000 in federal Head Start money. Vermont suffered nearly $800,000 in Head Start sequester cuts that will result in the elimination of an estimated 125 places for children statewide. While the sequester triggered a 5 percent cut for Head Start programs, the effect was magnified in some cases because agencies running them were already halfway through their fiscal years when the cuts went into effect.

Congress does not seem to feel any sense of urgency to address this situation. That is perhaps because the families whose children are enrolled in the federally funded preschool program are not in a position to make their pleas for exemption from the disastrous effects of the sequester heard quite as loudly as affluent business travelers. As Conarck reported, 90 percent of Head Start families have incomes at or below the federal poverty line, while the other 10 percent earn between 100 and 130 percent of the poverty level.

Of course, Head Start is but one of many housing, nutrition and education programs aiding low-income people that are being cut and whose recipients will feel actual pain instead of the mere inconvenience of having their flight delayed for a couple of hours. But cutting Head Start is emblematic of the shortsightedness of making mindless across-the-board budget cuts because there is widespread, although not unanimous, agreement that the program is effective at getting children off to a good educational beginning and thus addressing systemic poverty.

But if the sequester is the best Congress can do in the absence of a comprehensive budget deal that addresses both spending and taxes, then it should not be carving out exceptions one program at a time, because that will inevitably lead to a free boarding pass for those who don’t need one while those who can least afford it will bear the burden. You could almost say it’s un-American, but on second thought, these days it might be quintessentially American.