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Children are the collateral damage of the government shutdown as it heads into Day 3.
The federal shutdown has forced pre-kindergarten classes to close. Patients with incurable diseases have been turned away from a federal hospital. Millions of America’s poorest children are at risk of losing baby formula and healthy meals provided by federal programs.
The National Institutes of Health’s Clinical Center closed its doors due to the shutdown, turning away about 30 children who come seeking cures for incurable illnesses from cancer to infectious diseases, said Francis Collins, director of the NIH.
“When I think of the patients who come here — we are their last hope and to have to turn them away, how can I not feel emotional about that,” he says. “It’s pretty disheartening. … As the director of the NIH, I feel powerless.”
Collins said the Clinical Center receives on average about 200 new patients every week, about 30 of them children.
Congressional Republicans have proposed a series of piecemeal bills to address funding lapses for popular government services and agencies.
House Republicans are scheduled to advance a bill today to reinstate NIH funding so that cancer treatments and other medical programs can continue unabated.
Twenty-three programs across 10 states and Puerto Rico have no money to provide classes, meals and health services to almost 19,000 low-income children under 5. More closures are threatened if the shutdown lasts more than a month.
Vanessa Rich, president of the National Head Start Association board, says programs with fiscal years that began on Oct. 1 closed because they did not receive money to operate. She says others will run out of funding if the shutdown lasts much longer.
Head Start was launched in 1965 to help low-income children from birth to age 5 succeed in school, a direct result of President Johnson’s War on Poverty. Last year, Head Start served about 1 million of the nation’s poorest children with pre-kindergarten classes, meals, health screenings and parent training.
Rich says the program was already hobbled by the sequestration, which cut more than $400 million from its $8 billion budget. That translated into 57,000 children who were denied a place in Head Start and Early Head Start.
In Tallahassee, Victoria Thomas, 26, was left scrambling for child care for her daughter, Faith, 4, after nine Head Start programs closed.
“I can’t afford child care with my limited resources,” says Thomas, a single mom who is studying for a master’s degree in business. And she worries her daughter may fall behind.
“She’s learning so much,” she says. “The program is preparing her for kindergarten next year.”
In Talladega, Ala., more than 800 children under 5 have no Head Start programs, says Kay Jennings, executive director for Talladega Clay Randolph Child Care Corp.
She worries that parents, out of desperation, will leave children unattended. Parents say to her: “What about my child? I have to go to work.”
“You’re hurting kids in the long term and their ability to grow and learn and eventually become productive citizens,” says Cathy Flanigan, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Health, which administers the state’s WIC program.
About 8.8 million women and children who belong to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, won’t get vouchers to buy healthy food and baby formula.
Some states, such as Delaware, are scrambling to fund the program through the end of the week. Arkansas received an emergency grant from the federal government to last through Friday. Utah has stopped accepting new participants.
“These are vulnerable women and children,” says Douglas Greenaway, president of the National WIC Association.
WIC provides an average $45 a month worth of fruits, vegetables, diary, grains, canned fish and infant formula. Unlike food stamps, WIC provides food from a specific list of approved items, all of them nutritious and low in fat, calories and sugar. Most of the people served by WIC, a program started in 1974, are at or below the poverty level.