Sequestering the Future?

On my way back from Colorado recently, my flight was delayed and I got stuck in Chicago overnight. Annoying? Yes. Life-damaging? Most certainly not.

On the other hand, losing access to Head Start (a national anti-poverty program that provides comprehensive child development services to disadvantaged three and four-year olds)? That could really have a damaging impact on a young person’s life. A California study cited by the National Head Start Association shows that society receives nearly $9 in benefits for every $1 invested in Head Start for a child. These benefits include increased future earnings, employment, and family stability for the child along with decreased dependance on welfare, crime, grade repetition, and special education needs.

So what would you suffer through to give these children back their Head Start program? I for one would gladly spend a night stranded in a strange city if that meant that a low-income child would continue to receive these benefits, even for a week.

But that’s ridiculous! You say. No one is making a choice between one or the other. Well, that’s not necessarily true.

Last Friday, Congress approved a bill to end sequestration-caused furloughs of air traffic controllers in hopes of getting flights back on track nationwide – and then they flew home for a week-long recess. This was a great move for people waiting in long lines at airports – but not so great for the millions of vulnerable people suffering deeply because of  sequestration cuts – all of whom Congress ignored on their way out of the office.

So who are these suffering people again? Along with those disadvantaged kids trying to get an education, they are the long-term unemployed, seniors trying to get home care and meal services, and low-income people on the verge of homelessness – just to name a few.
A few quick facts about how sequestration is affecting our most vulnerable in various places around the country:

  • In Florida, approximately 2,000 kids will be turned away from Head Start and Early Head Start next year.
  • 80,000 long-term unemployed in Illinois will see their unemployment benefits reduced by 16.8 percent as of May 27.
  • Wisconsin’s La Crosse County will start serving 6,000 fewer meals to home-bound seniors because of sequestration cuts. For some seniors, this meal is the only one they get in an entire day.
  • A $1 million sequestration cut to the Salt Lake County Housing Authority will deny rental assistance to about 112 homeless/housing endangered families.

So why is ending tiresome airport lines more pressing than helping a child get a good education or getting a poor family into a home that they can afford? Simply put: M-O-N-E-Y. Airlines are big money power players, and the travel sector was losing millions of dollars for each day of continued furloughs. Airline execs were chomping at the bit to get these pesky sequestration furloughs fixed before the summer travel season. “That’s a critical time for our industry,” says Erik Hansen, director of domestic policy for the U.S. Travel Association.  He fears that the delays may have kept some international travelers from booking trips to the US.

Of course, travel and tourism are good for the economy – and everyone wants to see the economy continue to improve. But keep one thing in mind: helping vulnerable people become active participants in the economy is crucial to recovery as well. Making sure that kids receive a good education and are put on the path to college early in life makes it much more likely that they will get well-paying jobs and contribute to the economy in a positive way. Keeping families off of the street enables parents to hold down jobs and kids to stay in school. Helping seniors stay healthy means less of an economic strain from emergency room visits. The list goes on and on.

Do I have the answer to fixing all of the problems presented by sequestration while working to reduce the deficit? No. But I know that continuing to ignore the devastating problems it is creating for low-income people nationwide is not okay. I hope that our elected officials in Congress get their priorities straight upon returning from recess.

To ask Congress to protect important programs for low-income populations, take action with the National Education Association’s Ed Flight Campaign or send this emailable letter from the Coalition on Human Needs.