This Week in Poverty: Congress Turns Its Back on Rural America

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For fifteen years in Neodesha, Kansas (population 2,486) there were only two options for early childhood education services in town: a program for at-risk 4-year-olds operated by the school district, and a Head Start Center for children ages 0 through 5 run by the Southeast Kansas Community Action Program (SEK-CAP).

SEK-CAP offers a range of services to twelve counties, responding to the housing, utilities, transportation, employment, medical care, child care, education and nutrition needs of low-income people in Southeast Kansas. The counties have a combined population of approximately 192,000 people and the child poverty rate is nearly 26 percent—an increase of more than 13 percent in the past year. The past three years have also seen a rise in unemployment, food and housing insecurity, as well as agricultural and natural disasters.

Due to sequester cuts, SEK-CAP decided in May that it could no longer afford to operate the Head Start Center in Neodesha (pronounced “Nee-OH-duh-shay”), which served seventeen children and their families, and employed five staff members. The rental and maintenance costs of the building made this closure the obvious choice for the agency to find the savings forced upon it by Congress.

Gray said the affect of the cuts is far more significant than “it might appear on paper.”

“When you’re talking about people’s lives, and their ability to maintain gainful employment, or ensure that their children are receiving age-appropriate care and intellectual stimulation, then the cuts become incredibly deep and incredibly apparent,” said Gray.

In addition to instruction at the center, teachers made monthly home visits to work on family and education goals. Every child had an individualized education plan based on an assessment of his or her needs.

“My oldest son struggled with gross-motor skills for a while, so we focused on that and got him where he needs to be,” said Amanda Tompkins, chair of the SEK-CAP Policy Council and a Head Start parent who sent three children through the program. “My daughter was advanced in her speaking ability, so the teacher gave me tools so that I could [help] her grow that skill. The program has taught me how to be a mom and a teacher for my children.”

Linda Broyles, director of early childhood services for SEK-CAP, said that Tompkins’s experience is typical for a Head Start family.

“It’s more than just a preparation for the educational system, [it’s] comprehensive family services,” said Broyles. “That means working with the whole family to set and attain goals, increase positive behaviors, establish preventative health care and create a lifelong love of learning and education.”

“There are no other means of comprehensive family-centered services in the town,” said Kristie Groff, a teacher at the center for twelve years.

The sequestration cuts in Southeastern Kansas have had somewhat of a domino effect. SEK-CAP also offered home-based services to ten children and their families in the town of Parsons (pop. 10,454) in neighboring Labette County, where the child poverty rate for children under age 5 is over 31 percent. These home-based slots are now going to be moved to Neodesha—to partly compensate for the loss of the Head Start Center—because there are other early childhood education alternatives in Parsons.

“Some of those alternatives might be cost prohibitive for some families, but the fact is Neodesha needs the [home-based program] more now. It was just our best possible fix,” said Gray.

A teacher visited the ten families in Parsons once a week, for an hour and a half, to provide age-appropriate activities and referral services to address other family needs such as transportation difficulties or a desire to pursue continuing education. The program also offered “socialization opportunities” twice per month. These events usually included nutrition education and preparation of a healthy snack or meal, age-appropriate games and time for the adults to break off and hold a meeting.

“It’s an opportunity to train parents about the program, and they can share their questions or concerns, so it’s fantastic for communication and a sense of community,” said Tompkins. “And if you’re a stay-at-home mom and don’t have an outlet, these daytime play dates are pretty important so you don’t tear your hair out.”

Gray said the home-based services are especially important for parents struggling with transportation and employment, and sometimes education.

“The focus on health and nutrition leads to budgeting food dollars, which leads to budgeting your household resources,” she said. “These are the kinds of supports that help families move out of poverty.”

As early childhood education services are lost for low-income people with limited options in towns like Parsons and Neodesha, the concern is that too many parents are turning to “the house down the street” to watch their kids, said Gray.

“Often times that is more child care than early childhood development,” said Gray. It’s also more often than not an unlicensed facility, which is why it’s affordable. “In a licensed facility we know there is appropriate safety and hygiene, and there are age-appropriate, developmentally appropriate activities. We don’t necessarily know that those things are in place in an unlicensed facility.”

Gray said that the sequester cuts in some cases are more significant in rural areas—where families might have to travel “forty miles one way”—than in “a larger metropolitan city, where two or three blocks away there might be another option.”

“Rural America often gets overlooked. We know Kansas is referred to as a ‘Flyover State’,” said Gray. “But there are a lot of people here, and a lot of people in poverty. Sequestration is just one cut. It’s the impact of that steady erosion of financial resources that is much greater in rural communities—because there are far fewer resources.”

Tompkins believes the long-term costs of these sequester cuts are being overlooked by policymakers.

“I see all of the benefits of Head Start services—early education, early intervention, early detection for children ages 0 to 5,” she said. “The people who are making these decisions—they just see the numbers that cross their desk."

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