CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For several years, I used to spend one day a week at several Head Start centers in Southern West Virginia doing pre-GED classes. Several parents, usually but not always mothers, took advantage of the time when their children were in class to improve their own educational and job prospects.
I was definitely not God's gift to pedagogy -- the classes probably did more to improve my math skills than those of my students -- but it was always a thrill when somebody passed the GED. This could in some cases immediately lead to a job such as a bus driver in the Head Start center, which was itself the first step on a ladder to other opportunities.
That's just one example of the wrap-around benefits of this program. Far from being a babysitting service, Head Start is a comprehensive early childhood education program serving the neediest of needy families. It provides a range of programs and benefits, including education, childcare, transportation, help with parenting skills, health screenings, job and educational opportunities for parents and more.
The program also offers two hot meals and a snack a day to many of the nearly 1 million children in the program nationwide, thus providing two-thirds of the child's nutrition.
Unfortunately, Head Start programs in West Virginia and around the country are taking major hits, thanks to the automatic spending cuts imposed by the federal sequester, which is itself the latest in a string of congressional attempts to play with the lives of ordinary Americans by artificially creating budget crises. Other examples were the debt ceiling negotiations and the so-called fiscal cliff.
In West Virginia, there will be 461 fewer Head Start slots for children this school year. Fortunately, some of these children who are age 4 may be served by the state's pre-kindergarten programs, but others will no doubt fall through the cracks. And many of these families will lose the additional services Head Start offers. In addition, over 80 Head Start workers have lost their jobs so far.
If nothing is done, more automatic cuts will take place in October.
At a national level, The Washington Post reports that 57,000 children will lose Head Start services as a result of the sequester. More than 1.3 million days of services will be eliminated and over 18,000 employees will face either layoffs or pay cuts. In many centers, program hours will be cut. In other cases, the Post reports that "whole communities are losing access to Head Start . . . ."
There will be fewer health and dental screenings and fewer meals for children. The families dealing with these cuts are already vulnerable. The Huffington Post notes that "When these services are eliminated, it also affects parents, who often must find difficult-to-afford day care services or take off days of work to tend to their children." Some may be forced to choose between keeping a job or caring for children.
The Coalition on Human Needs sums up the sequester mess in three words: "Harmful and dumb." If it goes on things will only get worse as Head Start is just one of many programs subjected to automatic cuts.
West Virginia's congressional delegation would do well to do their part to make it go away, if only because the people affected by these mindless cuts aren't going to go away. In fact, they just might start showing up at the most inconvenient times and places. Things could get downright interesting.
Wilson, director of the American Friends Service Committee's West Virginia Economic Justice Project, is a Gazette contributing columnist.