The XX Factor

Cutting Head Start and Selling Us Out

As one of the most photogenic of the thousands of social programs singled out for cuts, Head Start is rapidly becoming the poster child for the difference between how Republicans and Democrats approach the budget.

And like all of the social programs lined up for cutting, it’s a diversion. The debate over Head Start (is it effective? Do the long-term gains found in school completion and reductions in juvenile arrests rates outweigh the lack of affect on test scores post-first-grade ? And what about the eight instances in which families with larger incomes were found to be using the program? Eight!) is the budgetary equivalent of bread and circuses for us masses. It gives us something we think we can comprehend to argue about while our representatives avoid discussing the usual third rails of fiscal policy. More than half of the government budget* goes toward spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.* By the time the government has met those and other mandatory spending obligations, it’s already out of money. The parties aren’t debating spending. They’re debating borrowing.

I did the math-the real math-on Head Start funding as a percentage of our federal budget. It’s worthwhile to look at it without all the obscuring but convenient “billion” and “trillion” shortcuts. The federal government’s income for 2011 is expected to be $2,630,000,000,000.00 Head Start’s proposed budget for 2011 is $8,200,000,000.00 I’m not going to lie to you-I had trouble working with all those zeroes-but Head Start’s proposed funding appears to represent .0031 of that total income (and even less of our total spending, a larger number under either party’s plan). Going back to Annie Lowrey’s brilliant comparison of federal spending to a household budget with an income of $60,000 : It’s $180.

Now, personal-finance experts would remind us that $180 isn’t nothing. Skip that cup of coffee daily (it’s not even a latte) and you’ll have significant savings! But as XXFactor contributor and financial writer Helaine Olen is always telling me, the latte factor is a fallacy. You’re not going to reduce your spending enough to have a real impact on your life by cutting back on coffee. You have to look at your big-ticket items, as painful as it may be. It’s true of the household budget and it’s true of the federal budget. We are not going to get ourselves out of trillions in national debt ( $14,182,663,848,364 as of yesterday ) by skipping a second cup, and we need to stop allowing our governing bodies to pretend that we are.

It’s wrong and short-sighted to focus budget cutting on those among us most in need of social services, and even more so when that budget-cutting is no more than an exercise designed to distract us from the real problems that lie ahead for long enough to get through the next election cycle. We’re selling our national soul for a pittance and gaining nothing by its price.

Correction, March 11, 2011 : The post originally pegged the national income at $263,000,000,000,000 rather than $2,630,000,000,000.00.

Correction, March 14, 2011: The post originally confused national income with the government budget. This post also pegged defense spending as non-discretionary. It is discretionary.