YONKERS, N.Y. — The only ones left in Room 5 at the Whitney Young Head Start Center are the two turtles thrashing around in a small aquarium. The reading nook is empty. The CD player is silent.
After more than a dozen years, this federally funded center serving mostly Latino families closed its doors for good on Friday, a victim of the federal budget cuts known as sequestration.
For Spanish-speaking families, the center, in the basement of a sooty housing project, has taught their children English, fed them, provided them medical care and prepared them to be ready for kindergarten without the academic deficits common among poor students.
“When I found out, for five nights I couldn’t sleep, thinking about it,” said Maireny Cammacho, 33, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic whose two sons attended the center.
Cammacho is eight months pregnant and works as a medical assistant. Her husband delivers Little Debbie cakes to supermarkets in predawn hours. Head Start has been the fulcrum that has kept their lives in balance. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Cammacho said.
Sequestration has turned out to be less dire than predicted in many areas, as some agencies have found ways around the worst of the mandatory reductions. But for poor people who rely heavily on government social services, the cuts have had sharp and immediate effects. That is particularly true for Latinos.
Hispanics are about 17 percent of the U.S. population but make up a third or more of those who use federal housing subsidies, job training and other social programs that have been put under the sequestration knife.
In Head Start, about 23,000 Latino children ages 6 weeks to 5 years, a third of the total, have been dropped from the program because of the budget reductions, according to estimates based on federal data. Latinos are also heavily affected by cuts in money for public schools that teach poor children and those learning English as a second language.
“Not everyone is sharing proportionally in the pain of these budget cuts,” said Elizabeth Crocker, who directs a Head Start and preschool program in a Latino neighborhood in Oakland, Calif., that is eliminating 39 of 608 slots.
The reductions come at a time of increasing political clout for Latinos, the nation’s fastest-growing voting bloc. Republicans, who have largely supported sequestration, are trying to improve the party’s relations with Hispanics, who last year voted for President Obama over GOP nominee Mitt Romney, 71 percent to 27 percent.
A majority of voters blame Republicans for the sequestration cuts, according to a Pew poll released in February. But Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary under George W. Bush, who helped write a recent report that called on the GOP to improve its relations with Hispanics, said the issue won’t harm the party’s outreach efforts.
The target for Republicans is not necessarily Latinos receiving government support, he said, but rather the “Hispanic entrepreneurial class.” Fleischer said the best way to win them over is through better messaging.
“Republicans need to spend a lot more time in the Hispanic community; they need to be welcoming, respectful,” he said. “So much of what has driven Hispanics away is tone.”
Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) said the cuts’ impact on Latinos became clear to her during a recent visit to a Head Start center in Port Chester, north of New York City.
After speaking about sequestration to parents for a few minutes, Lowey noticed that they looked puzzled. She realized that few could understand her.
“I said, ‘Does anybody speak English?’ ” she recalled. “Then I asked them if their children were teaching them English, and there was laughter and they raised their hands.”
In Denver, the Mi Casa Resource Center is losing 10 percent of its federal funding. The organization helps Latinos, primarily women, start or expand businesses. Last year, it assisted 650 businesses, from food trucks to cleaning services, that generated $10 million in overall revenue, Executive Director Christine Marquez-Hudson said. The cuts mean turning away people who are trying to become self-sufficient, she said.
“These are people who have no other resource. What are they going to do? Become homeless,” she said. “It’s just creating more social problems. Instead, we could be putting people to work.”
Crocker noted that Congress quickly canceled cuts to air-traffic controllers amid an outcry from airlines and travelers. But lawmakers have not protected social programs from sequestration.
“We’re talking about basic, rudimentary needs — about food on the table, going to the doctor,” Crocker said. “We’re not talking about having to wait an extra hour at the airport and read your novel or play with your iPad.”
Matt Barreto, a Latino-politics expert at the University of Washington, said that “almost everyone saying the sequester didn’t seem so bad is an upper-middle-class, professional, college-educated white person.”
“The people getting hit by these cuts across the board are people in the lowest rungs,” Barreto said. “People who depend on the safety net for month-to-month living. They’re outside the circles of public policy analysts and pundits.”
In Westchester County, an organization called WestCOP runs 23 Head Start programs, including the Whitney Young center in Yonkers, for children 6 weeks to 5 years old. Roughly 70 percent of the 1,749 children who attend all the centers are Latino, said Ellen Farrar, who is in charge of the group’s early-childhood programs.
“We have very rich here and very poor. There’s almost no middle class,” she said. “The very rich often have people to help them, and that’s very often Hispanic people.”
The sequester sliced $800,000 from WestCOP’s $13 million annual budget, Farrar said. She canceled field trips, furloughed employees and trimmed jobs.
When that wasn’t enough, Farrar decided to shutter the Whitney Young center, which served 58 babies, toddlers and preschoolers. Eighteen have been transferred to another Head Start center in Yonkers; the rest are out of luck.
About 10 staff members are losing their jobs as a result of the closure — the first time Farrar has shut a facility in 42 years of running Head Start programs.
“If I cut every single program, I would affect everybody’s quality,” Farrar said. “We talked about it over and over and decided to do it this way.”
Cammacho, the pregnant mother, said Head Start helped diagnose a speech delay in her 4-year-old son, Adriel, and got him the therapy he needed. Adriel will be able to transfer to the other Head Start center in Yonkers.
But Cammacho is at a loss about what to do for her other son, 19-month-old Hamiel, or her third child, due next month. One private group in Yonkers, the Greyston Foundation, will be able to absorb some families, but its child-care program is too far away for Cammacho.
Many of the parents at Whitney Young have no sense of what is causing the cuts; none have heard of sequestration. “Does it have to do with Cuomo?” asked Yahjaira Artiles-Leon, a mother of two, referring to Andrew M. Cuomo, New York’s Democratic governor.
Lilin Escobar, a 28-year-old immigrant from Guatemala, is trying to secure a new place for her son, Patrick, who is just shy of 2. Her older daughter, Irma, attended the Whitney Young Head Start program and is headed to kindergarten.
A single mother, Escobar works part time in a Cuban restaurant where she makes salads and says she earns $10,556 a year. The average cost for child care in Westchester County is $12,000 a year.
“I don’t earn enough to pay a babysitter or one of those expensive day cares,” Escobar said. “I can barely make ends meet now.”
Luz Lazo contributed to this report.