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Boom and Bust: Economic Recovery Falling Short for Kids

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How this economic recovery is going depends very much on who you talk to.

These are boom times for the wealthiest Americans, according to a recent study. But new figures out today show that our nation's poorest children -- the most vulnerable among us -- remain caught in a bust.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the number of children living in poverty has barely budged since 2011. The latest data show that 16 million American children are still growing up in families facing extreme economic hardship. For a family of four, that means living on less than $24,000 a year.

Nearly 1 out of 4 children in America lives in poverty, a shocking rate for a wealthy nation.

These numbers may be cold and matter-of-fact, but they translate very directly into real human suffering, with families fighting to feed their children and keep a roof over their heads. At the same time, our country is slashing the opportunities we've previously given such families to give their kids a brighter future.

In March, Congress initiated sequestration, cutting most federal programs by 8.2 percent, without regard for how they affected the nation's poorest children. The impact on three programs in particular is starting to hit these children hard:

  • Head Start, the poverty-fighting early education program, has been cut by $653 million. Save the Children estimates 80,000 to 100,000 children will lose services this year.
  • 21st Century Community Learning Centers, the only federal funding source dedicated exclusively to after-school programs, has lost $94 million. That means an estimated 145,000 at-risk children with few alternatives will lose programs that help them succeed academically and stay safe.
  • The Child Care and Development Block Grant has been cut by $187 million. As a result, Save the Children estimates 80,000 children of working poor families have or will soon lose quality child care.

How are these sequestration cuts playing out? As an example, Save the Children staff agonized for weeks over how to handle budget reductions to our Head Start programs in rural Louisiana. There were no good options. We considered shutting down one isolated community's classroom to make up part of the budget shortfall, but families were so distraught and had so few alternatives that we looked elsewhere. In the end, we cut a classroom at a different center but that, too, had its pains, and working parents who had relied on the classroom's later hours had to find other care for their children.

It's heartbreaking for the children who have lost a chance for critical early learning opportunities, and it is devastating to parents trying to work themselves out of poverty. Such forced cuts are a cruel and nonsensical way to aspire to national economic security.

Today, our national policies are making breaking the cycle of poverty even harder that it is already. Sequestration is leaving poor children less likely to enter school ready to succeed, less likely to graduate, and less likely to achieve success that contributes to our national economy.

If we stay on this track, we can expect future Census Bureau poverty reports to deliver bad news about our children for generations to come.