What a Government Shutdown Means for Low-Income Children

To learn more about government benefits that protect children, check out From Welfare to Work: What the 1996 Welfare Reform Initiative has Meant for Children, by Erin Holland, available on Westlaw.

by Molly Thornton

In the weeks leading up to the government shutdown in January of 2018, President Trump issued a series of tweets in which he warned that a government shutdown would have a devastating effect on the nation’s military.[1] In reality, much of the Department of Defense would continue working during a shutdown, continuing “operations necessary for the safety of human life or the protection of property.”[2] In addition to exaggerating the effect of a government shutdown on the military, President Trump’s tweets completely ignored a group that is far more vulnerable to the effects of a shutdown than the military: low-income children.

When the federal government last shut down in 2013, the Republican-led House refused to pass an appropriations bill unless President Obama and the Democrat-led Senate would agree to a budget that eliminated funding for the Affordable Care Act.[3] Lasting a period of sixteen days, the shutdown had a significant negative impact on a number federally-funded programs on which low-income children and their families rely. One such example is the program Head Start,[4] which operates centers that prepare low-income children for success in Kindergarten.[5] Without funding to pay employees, Head Start centers across the country were forced to close for up to nine days, affecting over 6,300 low-income children and their families.[6]

If Head Start centers are once again forced to close as the current administration continues to argue over the federal budget, both low-income children and their families will suffer. When Head Start centers close, participating parents must scramble to find alternative childcare, often forcing them to miss work to care for their children or to leave their children in unsafe settings.[7] Many families also rely on Head Start centers to provide nutritious meals and medical screenings for their children, services they would not otherwise receive.[8]

The recent shutdown, and the ongoing threat of future ones, also compromises the health of low- and moderate-income children who receive coverage through the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). After CHIP funding expired in September 2017, the federal government failed to reauthorize the program and only approved of $2.85 billion in temporary funding to maintain state programs until March 31, 2018.[9] However, some states would have begun running out of money to sustain the healthcare of these children well before March 31.[10] Researchers estimated that at least twenty-four states have insufficient funds to fully cover all participating children beyond February, and nearly 1.7 million children enrolled in separate state CHIP programs were at risk of losing coverage before the end of February if the shutdown were to continue.[11] A loss of coverage, however temporary, is particularly significant for the nearly two million children enrolled in CHIP who suffer from chronic health conditions and rely on expensive specialists and medications that may not be covered by other plans.[12] Had the program not been reauthorized as part of the continuing resolution to reopen the government, nine million low-income women and children would have lost their coverage altogether when the temporary funding ran out.[13] Even so, the continuing resolution fails to fund many of the health clinics on which these children depend, thus rendering the political action moot if millions of low-income families have no access to care.[14]

While it is a significant step that Congress reached an agreement to end the government shutdown and allow programs like Head Start and CHIP to continue at this juncture, it is also necessary that government leaders take responsibility for the ways in which their inaction endangers the most vulnerable members of our population: our children.

[1] See, e.g., Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) Twitter (Jan. 18, 2018, 5:49 AM), https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/953987636057821184.

[2] Trump Overstates Government Shutdown’s Effect on the Military, N.Y. Times, Jan. 19, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/19/us/politics/trump-government-shutdown-military.html

[3] Government Shuts Down as Bill to Extend Funding Is Blocked; Senate Adjourns for the Night, N.Y. Times, Jan. 19, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/19/us/politics/government-shutdown.html.

[4] See Off. Mgmt. & Budget, Impacts and Costs of the October 2013 Federal Government Shutdown (2013), https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/omb/reports/impacts-and-costs-of-october-2013-federal-government-shutdown-report.pdf.

[5] About the Office of Head Start, Off. Head Start, https://www.acf.hhs.gov/ohs/about (last reviewed June 15, 2017).

[6] Off. Mgmt. & Budget, supra note 4.

[7] Press Release, Yasmina Vinci, Exec. Dir. of the Nat’l Head Start Ass’n, National Head Start Association Statement on the Potential Shutdown of the Federal Government (Sept. 23, 2015) (on file with author); Head Start Shut Down By Government Shutdown, Nat’l Pub. Radio, Oct. 1, 2013, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=228198593.

[8] See Press Release, supra note 7.

[9] Tricia Brooks and Joan Alker, Geo. U. Health Pol’y Inst., Ctr. for Child. & Fams., When Will States Run Out of Federal CHIP Funds? (Jan. 2018 Update) https://ccf.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/When-Will-States-Run-Out-of-Federal-CHIP-FundsFINAL.pdf.

[10] Phil Galewitz, CHIP Funding Could Run Out on Jan. 19 For Some States, Nat’l Pub. Radio (Jan. 5, 2018), https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/01/05/576096900/chip-funding-could-run-out-on-jan-19-for-some-states.

[11] See Brooks & Alker, supra note 9.

[12] Michelle Andrews, Changes To Federal Insurance Plans Court Hurt Families of Chronically Ill Kids, Nat’l Pub. Radio, Apr. 25, 2017, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/04/25/525475221/changes-to-federal-insurance-plans-could-hurt-families-of-chronically-ill-kids.

[13] Michael Hiltzik, Republicans Fund Children’s Health Insurance Program, but Leave Their Local Health Centers in the Lurch, L.A. Times (Jan. 23, 2018), http://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-hiltzik-community-health-20180123-story.html.

[14] Id.