(WOMENSENEWS)–President Barack Obama emphasized in his State of the Union address on Tuesday that the fiscal belt is tightening, the budget ax is coming, the government is shrinking.

So mamas, watch out. The child care programs that many of us rely on to make ends meet and to help launch the next generation are at risk.

It’s preposterous, really, that we have to worry about this when what the country needs is far more, and far better–not less–child care, especially if we want the kind of competitive, innovative society Obama called for in his State of the Union address.

And don’t tell me we can’t get this done, even in a time of fiscal austerity.

Take a look at our own military. Somehow it manages to provide high quality, affordable child care. Our soldiers rely on that benefit, and we need it out here in the civilian world too.

The day before Obama’s primetime speech, he announced plans to ramp up support for military families in child care and in other areas. And yet, despite a good chunk of airtime devoted to investments in education during his annual address this week, he didn’t once mention public child care or early education.

Speaker of the House John Boehner has taken a more draconian approach. If he gets his way, the federal government will cut discretionary funding that is not linked to homeland security, the national defense or the nation’s veterans back to fiscal 2008 levels in March, when the continuing budget resolution that is currently keeping the government going expires.

That would amount to a 21 percent reduction from current spending levels for the remainder of the fiscal year, according to Helen Blank, director of leadership and public policy at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C.

10,000 Classrooms Would Shut Doors

What would that mean for families? Hundreds of thousands of children would lose access to federally-subsidized child care and early education programs and 10,000 classrooms would shut their doors, she said.

That prospect makes me shudder.

My son currently attends a public school on Capitol Hill that offers marvelous early education programming for children as young as 3 years old. Supervision is available as early as 8 a.m., giving parents enough time to drop off their kids and head to work. The school day ends at 3:15 p.m., but most parents take advantage of the school’s after-care program, which runs until 6 p.m. at an extremely affordable cost of $5 per day.

In the meantime, many students are given healthy, nutritious breakfasts and lunches. They’re taught by teams of experienced, well-educated teachers and work and play in classrooms with low teacher-to-child ratios and some with new equipment and furniture.

It’s a parent’s dream, especially since the equivalent private school program for 3 year olds in our neighborhood would cost around $15,000–and that’s a floor, not a ceiling.

I know how lucky I am to be able to participate in a high quality, public early education program, and I am clinging to the hope that our local school–which receives federal dollars–doesn’t suffer the brunt of proposed cuts.

I also worry for all the other parents–especially single moms–who rely on these kinds of programs to ensure that they can keep their jobs and that their children get the kind of care they need.

Research shows that responsive care and attention during the first five years of life is critical to children’s development.

Positive interaction and nurturing experiences help the young brain develop well, according to Dr. Jack Shonkoff at Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child. Poor experiences, on the other hand, "can literally cause a child to have a lower IQ."

Future of Our National Family

There’s also reason to worry about the future of our national family if these cuts are signed into law, the National Women’s Law Center’s Blank argued. Data indicate that early education programs reduce reliance on entitlement programs, increase students’ overall academic performance, improve health outcomes and build economic productivity, Blank said.

"Investments in early education help us build a smarter, healthier and stronger America," she said.

That’s why Blank and other advocates are waging a campaign to demand $2 billion to fund existing federal child care programs to ensure that the hundreds of thousands of children who currently rely on these programs don’t lose access to services.

There’s little time to lose. The short-term continuing budget resolution passed last year (which did not include any increases in federal child care funding) expires on March 4, and lawmakers must determine funding levels for the remainder of the year (and then for next year) soon.

Republicans now in control of the House of Representatives are buoyed by a populist swell of fiscal conservatives and a GOP pledge to slash the federal budget by $100 billion, starting with their own operating budget.

Democrats are getting in on the game too. On Tuesday, Obama laid out a plan to freeze domestic spending–although not in the areas of education, infrastructure and mass transit–for the next five years. "We have to confront the fact that our government spends more than it takes in," he said in his address. "That is not sustainable."

Cutting ineffective, wasteful and redundant programs is one thing. But a five-year deep freeze is not in our national interest when it comes to child care.

As lawmakers come under intense pressure to cut, cut and cut some more, let’s do what we can to let them know we want them to keep out of our national nursery schools.

It’s beyond foolish to slash the safety net for moms and kids. Our lawmakers need to stand up and get that message through the cost-cutting clamor.

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Allison Stevens writes about women, politics and motherhood for a variety of publications and organizations, including groups that promote women’s issues.

For more information:

The National Women’s Law Center:

The First Five Years Fund: