In the days leading up to sequestration, President Obama and other administration officials often singled out Head Start as one of the vital programs that would be severely impacted by the automatic spending cuts. Phrases like "70,000 kids get thrown off of Head Start" and "70,000 young children would be kicked off Head Start" were common refrains. On Friday, as the sequester went into effect, President Obama himself said:
[F]olks who suddenly -- might have been working all their lives to get an education, just so that they can get that job and get out of welfare and they've got their kid in Head Start, and now, suddenly, that Head Start slot is gone and they're trying to figure out how am I going to keep my job, because I can't afford child care for my kid...
That same day, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) put out a memo to Head Start personnel echoing the same claims, albeit in less dire language:
As you are likely aware, in accordance with the Budget Control Act of 2011, a series of spending cuts, called sequestration, will cancel approximately $85 billion in budgetary resources across the federal government for the remainder of the federal fiscal year. The President is required to issue a sequestration order today, March 1, resulting in spending reductions of approximately 5 percent for the remainder of the federal fiscal year. We estimate that approximately 70,000 children will lose access to Head Start services because of this reduction.
The Obama administration has not released its calculations on how its arrived at the 70,000 figure, but based on past experience, it seems likely that the number is simply an estimate based on the dollars that will not be spent. However, a look at recent Head Start enrollment numbers and budgets calls that assertion into question.
Just a little over a year ago, HHS issued this memo regarding Head Start after President Obama signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012.
TO: Head Start and Early Head Start Grantees and Delegate Agencies
SUBJECT: FY 2012 Head Start Funding Increase
INSTRUCTION: President Obama signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012 on December 23, 2011. This Act included the Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 appropriation for programs under the Head Start Act of $7,968,543,933. This represents an increase of approximately $409 million over the FY 2011 appropriation level.
So the amount budgeted represented an increase of $409 million over the previous year, an increase of approximately 5 percent. The bottom line is that the 5 percent cut by the sequester simply brings Head Start levels back to where they were a year ago, hardly a doomsday scenario.
And the 70,000 children who will be thrown off Head Start? According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, an organization that compiles numbers on Head Start enrollment, Head Start enrollment for 2012 totaled 1,128,030. Enrollment for the year before, 2011, was 1,125,209, a difference of less than 3,000, a far cry from 70,000.
Obviously these enrollment figures are not unimpeachable and the time periods may not match up precisely, but it would appear ludicrous to say that 70,000 will be kicked off. Unless the administration can back up its claims with hard data, questions may continue to be raised about the dire consequences being predicted by the president and his officials.