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Victims Once More, Head Start Families Struggling Under Shutdown

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KIM MAXWELL
Kim Maxwell and her son. | Kim Maxwell

WASHINGTON -- As she drove along the outskirts of Tallahassee, Fla., on Thursday, Kim Maxwell, 38, became overwhelmed with emotions. It had been nearly three days into the government shutdown, and the political paralysis brought on by warring lawmakers in Washington, D.C., had begun seeping into her life. The Head Start program that her 3-year-old son Matthew attended had closed, leaving her to balance new parenting responsibilities with critical work hours.

“I was bawling on Interstate 10,” Maxwell said. “It just hit me. I feel so bad for Matthew being stuck in the house and I’m not having the money to put him in another program.”

Three days may not seem like a lot of time. But for Maxwell, it was enough to bring her to tears. Since enrolling in Head Start, Matthew had learned to bottle his energy. One-word utterances had blossomed into whole sentences. While her son was at school, Maxwell had used the time to get back on her feet and start her own house-cleaning business.

They were building a life. Maxwell had gotten two to three cleaning jobs per day and began making payments on the rent-to-own television and her bed.

With Head Start closed, she’s lucky to get a babysitter to watch her son long enough to get one house cleaned per day. She’s already lost a few hundred dollars in wages, she said, and if it goes on longer she will have to further narrow her priorities and ambitions.

“We’re just going to keep the electricity on and eat,” Maxwell said. “We’re not going to worry about anything else.“

The perception that the government shutdown has had no demonstrable effect on the country is not true. Yes, various agencies have dipped into emergency funds to put off some of the pain. But communities big and small are feeling the effects -- and perhaps no group knows the real pain of the shutdown better than Head Start families.

According to the National Head Start Association, as many as 23 programs in 11 states will be left completely without funding because of the shutdown. The potential number of children left out of the classroom could reach 19,000, officials say.

At a recent conference in Crystal City, Va., many Head Start administrators said they were devastated that the program was taking such a blow once again, after having been gutted by the budget cuts known as sequestration. That the shutdown was occurring close to the beginning of the school year -- when children were just getting used to life in the classroom -- made it all the harder.

In Tallahassee, nine Head Start centers in three counties have been shuttered, leaving 378 children without service, according to Tim Center, the executive director of the Capital Area Community Action Agency, which is responsible for providing the programs. Center said the cuts don't just mean less prekindergarten education. They also mean children losing out on meals and access to dental and medical care. For families already struggling financially, the hit is severe.

"This is devastating to the parents who need child care in order to go to work or go to school that will take them out of poverty," Center explained. "Most of our families don't have the resources to purchase good childcare or preschool in the private sector."

The shutdown, in short, has forced low-income families to make quick and painful financial choices. Christine Ford, 30, a Tallahassee single mom working two jobs, said she was forced to dip into savings to pay the $300 for day care when her daughter's Head Start abruptly closed.

“That was my money for food,” she told HuffPost. “I don’t know what to do. I’m already working 50, 55 hours a week and I’m a full-time grad student.”

“The food that I have in my house is going to be what I have to live on until this is over,” she said.

In Mississippi, Head Start closings have meant 900 kids have gone without school and 220 employees have gone without work, according to Jonathan Bines, executive director of a five-county Head Start program. The programs didn't have reserve funds to fall back on in light of the government shutdown. So now he's left hoping that the shutdown will come to a quick end.

"What do we need to get Congress fired up enough to think of these families?" asked Bines, who has spent the last few days going into the empty office.

Curtis Magee, 42, who is raising two children in central Mississippi, is also hoping for a quick resolution. A direct care worker at a nearby mental health facility, he hasn't quite figured out how he's going to come up with the cash to pay a neighbor who has provided emergency day care for his daughter. With all his other bills, he thinks he'll have to borrow money from a family member.

"I don't have no other choice," he said. "I can't stay home from work."

Magee also is worried that his daughter will be confused or upset if she finds out that her classroom is closed (and could be for several weeks). So he's been telling her that the reason she can't go to school is because staff has had to clean and paint the building. He is growing increasingly angry with Congress.

"I try to be a pretty reasonable fellow, man," he said. "If your kids needed this, how would you feel about it? My daughter was learning her numbers. She was learning her letters. She was learning how to spell her whole name."

As children and parents cope with the loss of their school, the Head Start staff themselves worry about the next paycheck. Center says that the day his Head Start programs closed was the day the staff's pre-sequestration hours were going to be restored from seven-hour work days to eight. He has encouraged staff to find temp work and to file for unemployment.

Tanzania Johnson, 38, a Head Start bus driver and bus monitor in Tallahassee, says she currently doesn't have enough cash to buy gas for her own car. She's still trying to catch up on the bills that piled up after her pay was cut by sequestration. Making next month's rent is now an uncertainty.

"We might be forced to move," Johnson said. "I'm set back. I'm behind already."

The morning after breaking down in her car while on the interstate, Maxwell arranged for a relative to watch Matthew so she could go to her cleaning job. It was tough to leave her child. He cried and cried, she said, asking if she was going to come back home.

"You feel bad leaving your son because you know he's not out there seeing things, learning things. He's stuck at home," she said. "I never thought something like this would affect me so closely."

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