In his 1964 State of the Union address, President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the war on poverty. At the time, the poverty rate in the United States was nearly 20 percent, and at his urging Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act, a piece of legislation that created the Office of Economic Opportunity, which was later folded into the Office of Community Services in the Department of Health and Homeland Security in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan.
One of the most significant — and often controversial — programs to come out of the war on poverty is the Head Start Program, which was launched in 1965. The program was initially designed to bring low-income children who had been unable to attend preschool or obtain education at home up to speed during the summer so that they could enter a regular kindergarten program at the beginning of the academic year in the fall.
Unfortunately, results were underwhelming. Children usually entering the program at age 5 and who had spent their entire lives in poverty were largely unable to “catch up” in just six weeks, and the program was overhauled in 1981.
While it’s hard to quantify the effectiveness of the program in a meaningful way, most observers agree that Head Start provides a tremendous social good. The program has helped prepare tens of millions of poor children for school. In 2012, the program spent $8 billion to fund 956,000 students — about $8,368 per head for the year.
But sequestration spending cuts have been indiscriminate, and the Head Start program has been ordered to reduce funding by 5 percent. While, at a glance, this doesn’t seem like a tremendous loss, the Department of Health and Human Services outlined the impact in a recent blog post:
“For months, we have seen local stories of families and communities struggling to cope as Head Start programs have been forced to turn away children because their budgets were stretched to the breaking point. In small towns and big cities, the stories have been much the same.
And now we have added up all those cuts from across the country to better understand the national impact. Today the Office of Head Start is reporting that approximately 57,000 children were cut from Head Start programs this year because of sequestration.
Those 57,000 include more than 51,000 fewer children in Head Start (ages 3-5) and nearly 6,000 fewer children, families and pregnant women in Early Head Start (ages 0-3) in the current program year due to sequestration.”
And the cuts don’t stop there. The program will be forced to terminate or reduce the salaries of 18,000 employees and provide fewer hours of education per student for those still in the program. The agency writes:
“The decision to take away funding for high quality early learning for tens of thousands of young Americans is indefensible morally and economically. If we shortchange our children, we shortchange our nation. Strong early learning can translate into school success, which can lead to college and good jobs, and ultimately a robust economy. Research shows that a public dollar spent on high quality early childhood education can return $7 through increased productivity and savings on public assistance and criminal justice programs.”
Treasury data from July show that the U.S. budget deficit this year to date is $607 billion and on track to hit $759 billion by the end of the year. This compares against a total 2012 budget deficit of $1.1 trillion in 2012; the decline can mostly be attributed to the fiscal cliff tax deal, which increased government revenue, and the sequestration spending cuts, which decreased outlays.
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