Nationally, Head Start, which serves nearly a million children of low-income families, had to slice 5 percent off its $8.1 billion budget. Some chapters have eliminated classes, scaled back transportation or shortened their school year.
When the Head Start program for 16 counties in western Kentucky lost about $750,000 in funding, it laid off about 50 people, mostly teachers, and reduced its roster by more than 160 children, according to Aubrey Nehring, chief executive officer of Audubon Area Community Services in Owensboro, Ky. Three centers were closed entirely.
What's especially difficult, he says, is that about 75 percent of these Head Start parents were working or in school. "They cannot afford child care and still work," Nehring explains. "Most have minimal family support. That's the saddest part of the story. You have families making real progress climbing out of poverty, then you come and take that opportunity away from them."
Harrell, 26, waited months to get her daughter, Vamira, into Head Start. She'd drop her off before heading to a paralegal job, then pick her up after work (she was laid off early this year). She noticed significant changes in her daughter. "She can count better, she knows her alphabet, she knows different animals," Harrell says. "She learned a whole lot there."
When her daughter's classroom was among a dozen eliminated, Harrell says, "it broke my heart," even more so when her little girl asked, "Why did they kick me out?"
Douglas was stunned to lose her teaching post after almost five years with the program. "I thought of myself as a great employee," she says.
But she adds, "I couldn't have a pity party too long." She quickly planned her next step, deciding to return to college to complete her bachelor's degree in education.
Still, Douglas wonders why Head Start has to make sacrifices. "How can you make cuts in education? It's the root of everything," she says. "The politicians should cut the money they get for themselves ... That would be a great idea."
The letter from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity felt like a punch in the face to Charles Medler.
"You have exhausted your Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) Tier III benefits," the letter read. No more were available.
The 57-year-old from Interlachen thought he had four more weeks of benefits coming. It was just $275 a week, but it made a huge difference.
"You plan, 'Well, OK. We're good for another month or month and a half. I still have a little more time left,'" Medler says. "And you start planning for that, and then all of a sudden, bang, the rug gets pulled out from underneath you?"
Tier III are federally funded benefits that start when a worker has exhausted 19 weeks of payments by the state. But while other states made the cuts by trimming the amount individuals receive, Florida's solution was to lop off the last four weeks of benefits for up to 100,000 laid-off workers.
It was just the latest setback for Medler. In November 2011, he was laid off by Georgia-Pacific Wood Products after more than 30 years. He took his pension early, which reduced his monthly payment from $1,000 to $627.
Medler says the loss of their middle class lifestyle pushed his already emotionally fragile wife over the edge. Their divorce is all but final.
After having to let two cars go, he's left with a 16-year-old minivan with about 150,000 miles on it. He has two mortgages on his home, totaling about $15,000 more than the current appraised value.
While handing out resumes and applying for jobs, Medler takes whatever odd jobs he can find. He's dug ditches, mowed yards, raked leaves and fixed pipes. He also volunteers at food pantries and churches — partly to give back, but also in hopes that it might lead to a job.
In the meantime, he has cut everything he can — even trips to nearby Gainesville for go-carts with his sons, Richard, 17, and Ryan, 16.
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