Head Start cuts enrollment as Massachusetts social service agencies hurt by government cuts

“Luckily, I’ve got plenty of free time still to do community organizing,” Reddington-Wilde said, as she prepared to speak at a Statehouse rally opposing government cuts to social services.

Reddington-Wilde worries that government cuts will incapacitate social service organizations like Action for Boston Community Development. Personally, she has not found another job, and the money she earns from teaching one evening course is not enough to sustain her household.

Sequestration refers to $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts over 10 years, split between domestic and defense spending. The cuts were put in place by Congress in 2011 after Congress and President Barack Obama failed to reach a budget deal, and Congress was unable to reach a compromise to avert the cuts before they went into effect this March.

During a budget debate earlier this year, state and national officials warned of dire consequences should sequestration go into effect. Four months later, reports are mixed as to its impact.

Nationally, Congress and federal agencies have taken steps to mitigate some cuts, particularly relating to public safety. The Washington Post reported that in several instances, agencies were able to cut nonessential services such as maintenance. Sometimes, Congress moved money around, for example to avoid furloughing air traffic controllers.

However, sequestration has squeezed a number of programs that help needy individuals – those who rely most on government assistance for childcare or housing.

In the New England Community Outlook Survey released this month by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, service organizations ranked federal budget cuts and sequestration as the third biggest challenge facing low-income communities, after jobs and affordable housing.

“The impact of sequestration is disproportionate,” said Robert Pollin, professor of economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at University of Massachusetts in Amherst . “The biggest cuts that have been enacted, and people have felt have been in programs for lower income communities like Head Start and Meals on Wheels, preschool education, housing subsidies.”

The state Executive Office for Administration and Finance is working with the University of Massachusetts’s Donahue Institute to estimate sequestration’s economic impact on Massachusetts in terms of jobs, wages, income and gross state product, but those numbers are not yet available.

Anecdotally, interviews with social service providers find a range of impacts. Some are cutting services; others have been able to avoid direct impacts so far, but say they will not be able to do so if the cuts continue.

One significant impact is on Head Start, a program that is mostly federally funded and provides childcare for children up to age 5 whose families are at or below the poverty line. It offers services including nutrition, health care and family support. The program saw a 5.27 percent cut in funding.

Pam Kuechler, executive director of the Massachusetts Head Start Association, said based on numbers reported by each Head Start program statewide, Massachusetts will lose 1,580 spots for children, out of 13,000 currently available.

Kuechler said some programs closed early last year or are opening later this year. Around 190 staff members will lose their jobs.
This was my 40th year in Head Start…and I’ve never seen such a significant cut to a Head Start budget. Janis Santos.

“We’re definitely going to feel the impact once September hits,” Kuechler said. “My question is what’s going to happen to those families if they don’t have those opportunities.”

The Head Start covering the Springfield, Holyoke and Chicopee areas last year provided services to more than 1,200 children, mostly preschoolers but some toddlers and children of migrant seasonal workers. This fall, it will cut that number by 200. The program closed two weeks early in the spring and will open two weeks late in the fall.

“It’s just limited our ability to enroll the same amount of children we historically have enrolled,” said executive director Janis Santos. “Kids might stay on the wait list longer.”

Due to the area’s high poverty rates, the program already often has a waiting list of 500 children. “This was my 40th year in Head Start…and I’ve never seen such a significant cut to a Head Start budget,” Santos said. She worries that denying children access to the program could hurt them later when they are unprepared to attend school.

Boston Head Start, the state’s largest program, used to serve 2,500 students but plans to drop enrollment by 200 to 250 by keeping new families on the waiting list, said Sharon Scott-Chandler, executive vice president for ABCD, which oversees the program.

Another cut affecting low-income individuals is to the budget for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees federally subsidized housing programs and which warned earlier this year that 125,000 people nationwide could lose the federally funded vouchers used to obtain “Section 8” housing. HUD said other housing-related programs would also be cut. A HUD spokesman referred questions about local impact to individual housing agencies.

Carolyn Federoff, an attorney in the office of the general counsel at HUD and vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said some local housing agencies are keeping people on the waiting list for housing for longer. “Tenants are living under conditions with less maintenance and less capital funding…. Graffiti is not being removed as often, lawns are not being mowed as often, windows aren’t being repaired,” Federoff said.

The exact impact varies by agency. The Boston Housing Authority ended a resident services program, while the Worcester Housing Authority ended security motor patrols, according to news reports.

Springfield Housing Authority executive director William Abrashkin said between earlier congressional budget cuts and sequestration, the authority is now getting $2.1 million less than if it were fully funded – which it last was in 2010. (Of that, $459,000 was due to sequestration.) The authority’s federal budget, this year around $17 million, goes to maintaining housing and providing services to residents, such as care for at-risk elders and education for children.

Abrashkin said the big cuts to Section 8 housing have so far mostly hurt administration - paying for staff to administer programs, meet legal requirements and inspect apartments. Abrashkin said the authority dipped into administrative reserves to cover costs without hurting services, but that is not sustainable long term.

“Although there are many people in Congress who are advocating for adequate funding for these programs, such as our own congressman (Richard) Neal and other members of the Massachusetts delegation, the goal of Congress as an institution appears to be to kill the programs, or at least wound them seriously, with a thousand cuts,” Abrashkin said.

Springfield Partners for Community Action has similarly dealt with the cuts in the short-term without cutting vital services. Executive director Paul Bailey said the organization lost $30,000 from a $600,000 community block grant, and was able to address that by laying off a full time development person. The biggest impact to direct services is in a program that weatherizes homes for individuals who are eligible for fuel assistance. The agency lost $100,000 from a $1.3 million grant – translating to 40 to 50 people who will not have their homes weatherized.

“From the outside, it doesn’t look to be a lot, didn’t seem like it did much, but it does disrupt things,” Bailey said.

Scott-Chandler, of ABCD, said her organization has seen cuts to social safety net programs ranging from Head Start to fuel assistance to adult education, family planning and substance abuse.

“I hear probably what you hear, which is much ado about nothing,” she said. “And from where we sit that’s just absolutely not true.”

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