One of the things I love most about being a political scientist is that there are always fascinating political developments taking place. I never have to worry about whether I'll have a real world example to share with my students to illustrate federalism, Constitutional authority, civil liberties, foreign policy, etc. Rather I often find myself trying to decide how to narrow the expansive universe of choices.
With the launch of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, President Obama's historic conversation with the President of Iran, and Herman Wallace's release from prison after spending over 40 years in solitary confinement, this week has been no exception. But against the backdrop of those milestones, the first government shutdown in 17 years has captivated the public's attention—and brought devastating chaos to many.
Most folks are talking about what the shutdown means for the estimated 2 million government employees and contractors who have been furloughed. Party leaders are focusing on how it may impact Ted Cruz's anticipated 2016 bid for the Presidency. Academics are pondering the apparent need to make Schoolhouse Rock's "I'm Just a Bill" required viewing for every member of Congress and members of the general public who pontificate on message boards and via social media. And pundits are articulating what public opinion scholars have known for decades: that how you ask a question shapes the answers you receive. (See Jimmy Kimmel's hilarious yet disconcerting segment on public support for the "Affordable Care Act" vs. "Obama Care"). All of these dimensions are important and highlight the far reaching nature of a government shutdown. But there's one constituency that has been tragically overlooked amid all of those discussions: Children.
Since 1965, over 30 million children from low-income families have been educated in Head Start programs across the United States. The federally-funded program is built on the premise that access to early childhood education is imperative for preparing children for success in school and in life more broadly. When Lyndon B. Johnson launched the program as part of the "War on Poverty," it was envisioned as simply a short term experiment on poverty interventions. It has grown into a full year program that serves children for whom education can radically transform their emotional, financial, and physical well-being. And yet there are nearly 19,000 children across the United States who are no longer being educated in Head Start programs because of the shutdown.
So while millions of fans are cheering the return of Olivia Pope, the real "Scandal" in this country appeared on October 1st when partisan bickering led to thousands of children being turned away from school because there were no federal funds available for Head Start. Many children in low-income homes rely on school for education AND for meals. More than 16 million children in this country live below the federal poverty line. That's about 22% of all children in the most democratic country in the world who live with daily reminders of their fragile standing. Consider the impact of the shutdown on families where parents of Head Start students can't go to work because they don't have childcare available for their kids. Or what will happen for both parents and childcare providers when childcare vouchers are either delayed or not disbursed at all. What about the 9 million women and children who rely on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) for baby formula and breastfeeding support? According to the USDA over half of ALL children born in the United States receive nutritional assistance via WIC.
The commitment to leaving 'no child behind' has to stretch beyond performance on standardized tests. It must include an emphasis on the everyday challenges that hamper the success of certain students. What damage will be done to students who are out of school for weeks while Washington operatives decide their fate? What happens when parents who rely on federal subsidies have to make impossible choices between keeping a roof over their children's heads and putting food on their table? It's no coincidence that the U.S. Postal Service is one of the few entities still operating during the shutdown. Money may not be coming into homes but the bills are certainly being delivered.
In 2014, every one of the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives will be up for (re)election. Take note of how your elected officials feel about the shutdown and hold them accountable. But don't wait until 2014 to let your members of Congress know that imperiling the lives of our most vulnerable citizens (CHILDREN!) is unacceptable. Challenge your community groups, civic organizations, business associations, and houses of worship to offer assistance to these students and their families. Create a directory of childcare providers who have openings. Make donations to local food pantries who serve families in crisis. Organize retired educators to offer tutoring and learning opportunities at local libraries. No matter what you choose to do, understand that helping to lessen the impact of the shutdown isn't about providing handouts. It's about investing in our children. To quote Erykah Badu, "Stay woke."
Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Quinnipiac University where she writes about American Politics, political psychology, and punishment. Find her online @KBDPHD and kbdphd.blogspot.com.