Policy Resource

Baby Faces of Austerity: Stories from the Sequester

Nov 18, 2013

Once upon a time, “sequester” was a word that rarely intruded upon those of us in Washington, DC, much less on the everyday lives of infants and toddlers, their families, and the service providers who help support their development.

Now the sequester is synonymous with loss and pain, deeply felt by those who experience it, but not so widespread as to be noticed by much of America. Today, a coalition of advocates for individuals and families who look to those domestic programs affected by the across-the-board cuts has compiled stories to put a human face on what to many is merely a budget-cutting exercise.

The report released today, Faces of Austerity: How Budget Cuts Have Made Us Sicker, Poorer, and Less Secure, first takes us through how these “Non-Defense Discretionary”, or NDD, programs benefit people all around America, in all walks of life, each and every day. It shows that NDD means safe food, clean water, weather reports, education, public transit, public safety, and recreation (remember the outcry over closed national parks during the shutdown?) But for millions of individuals and families, NDD means shelter and other vital services as well.

NDD programs were already being targeted for cuts even before the sequester kicked in earlier this year. Between 2010 and 2011, they saw cuts averaging 7%. The Budget Control Act mandated levels of deficit reduction and provided a blunt-instrument approach to achieving them through across-the-board spending cuts if Congress failed to reach agreement. As we know, the “Super Committee” given this task ultimately threw up its hands, and sequestration went into effect for 2013.

Currently, the House and Senate are conferencing on a budget plan for 2014, with addressing the sequester issue at the top of the list of issues on which they are trying to hammer out an agreement by December 13. There are different levels of urgency. Some lawmakers want to relieve the defense sector from cuts. Others want to return to higher levels of domestic spending to restore the cuts already in effect. Still others are fine with the lower spending levels.

Today’s report shows that these decisions will have profound implications for everyday Americans. “Cuts have consequences” for individuals, families, state governments, local businesses, and the economy as a whole. But what do they mean for babies and toddlers? From time to time, we have written about sequester impacts on various programs for very young children and their families. Today, we are pulling stories from this new report—a kind of “baby faces of austerity.”

Head Start/Early Head Start: Southern Oregon Head Start (SOHS) has lost $375,382 per year with the sequester. This 5% cut from their $6.9 million federal grant would have been hard to handle, but because it occurred with almost half the program year gone, it was magnified to a 9% cut. The agency coped by laying off employees, reducing staff hours, and furloughing everyone. SOHS serves a relative handful of infants and toddlers—93% to 96 % of eligible infants in the counties the agency covers are without Early Head Start services. The waitlist is 261 kids and is expected to grow throughout the school year. (NOTE: An estimated 6,000 infants and toddlers lost access to Early Head Start because of the sequester.)

Early Intervention: The report’s early intervention story is one of hope—the good that programs can do when they are able to reach children who need them. It tells of Ben, who was 18 months old when his parents noticed delays in his speech. Their doctor said that his delays were the result of living in a bilingual family. They didn’t accept this and were later connected with Easter Seals Southeast Wisconsin’s “Birth to Three” program—an early intervention program established by Part C. After six months in the program, Ben is making great progress. When he talks, he speaks in full sentences and is understood by others, and Ben’s parents better understand his sensory issues and fine motor-skill needs.

Housing: Stable housing is one of the keys to positive early development, underscoring how development requires a broad range of supports that may not always be thought of as developmentally related. Around the country, public housing authorities have had to stop issuing or even recall vouchers, lay off staff, and raise rents to cope with cuts. The stories tell of parents reeling as they try to figure out how to cope.

Environment: Even environmental programs contribute to babies’ development. The infant brain is extremely sensitive to environmental toxins, not only lead, but also mercury and manganese, which can disrupt healthy brain development. The sequester led to the elimination of a new Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Center, which would have studied children’s exposure in child care centers to air pollution, fire retardants, and other widely available products with toxic components over an extended period of time, and the impact on health.

Health: State newborn screening programs identify and follow-up on identified genetic or metabolic disorders for the four million infants born in the United States annually. Each year, this effort identifies more than 12,000 babies who test positive. Immediate treatment can help avoid serious and costly long-term health consequences such as intellectual disability, organ damage, and even death. Because of sequestration and other longer term budget cuts, it is estimated that nearly 1.8 million babies born this year will not be tested. The principal federal funders of newborn screening—Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA)— have seen core budget cuts of 19 percent and 27 percent, respectively, since 2010.

The Faces of Austerity reminds us of what is at stake for children, for the most vulnerable among us, and for us all. Speculation around the budget talks here in Washington has moved from a grand bargain, to a little bargain, to a shrug of acquiescence to the status quo—which in this case means more cuts. We have to care that our neighbors have shelter and food, that our roads and bridges are sound, that our children can breathe the air safely, even that we know to throw a jacket on them as they are running out the door to child care or school. And we have to care that we must invest in our future so that all our children have the opportunity to reach their potential.

Tomorrow the tension between austerity and hope will be apparent on Capitol Hill, as the budget conferees meet even as a bipartisan early learning bill is introduced. Watch for our alert to learn how you can Be a Big Voice for Little Kids™ and help resolve this tension so that cuts are healed and children have brighter futures.

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