Trump’s Budget Would Undermine Children, Weaken Head Start

By Ruth Cosse and Hannah Matthews

President Trump’s FY 2018 budget claims to demonstrate “commitment to early childhood outcomes by continuing to fund Head Start and Child Care at historically high levels.” In reality, it would cut funding for Head Start, child care assistance, and after-school child care. Furthermore, the budget would slash health care, nutrition assistance, and other supports that promote health, wellbeing, and economic security for poor children and families, including those enrolled in Head Start.

The president’s proposed cuts would undermine Head Start’s ability to deliver on quality standards, including robust comprehensive services like preventive health services, developmental screenings, and family support. Decades of research on effective early education programs demonstrate the central role of comprehensive services in advancing poor children’s wellbeing as well as their success in adulthood. Head Start, in particular, is proven to improve early childhood and young adult outcomes.

Budget Cuts Would Rip Key Supports from Head Start Families

CLASP’s analysis of administrative data finds that Head Start families rely on the following programs:
  • Most (87 percent) Head Start children receive health insurance through the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and/or Medicaid.  The president’s budget would dramatically cut and restructure both CHIP and Medicaid allowing states to cut benefits, cap coverage, or create waiting lists. It would also remove guarantees for developmental screening and other services. Health coverage is crucial to ensure that Head Start children can access a medical home for ongoing care and are up to date on immunizations, as required by the program. Access to CHIP and/or Medicaid early in life improves children’s long-term health and helps them succeed in school and into adulthood. 
  • More than half (56 percent) of Head Start families receive nutrition assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP provides nutritious food to low-income children and parents. The Trump budget would slash funding by $193 billion over 10 years and radically change SNAP’s structure. This would significantly increase food insecurity, which undermines children’s healthy development and school readiness. Significantly, children who are food insecure during their first years can experience lifelong consequences.  They often have fewer opportunities than their peers for academic success and experience worse health and educational outcomes.
  • Thirteen percent of Head Start families received cash benefits or other services under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). TANF funds provide cash assistance and a range of other benefits to low-income families.  Additionally, in 2015, states used 6 percent of TANF funds to support Head Start or pre-kindergarten services.  The president’s budget would cut TANF by at least 10 percent in every state. This would severely reduce the amount of funding available to provide income and supports to Head Start families, as well as funding for Head Start services. 
  • Seven percent of Head Start families receive Supplemental Security income (SSI). SSI provides cash assistance to individuals who are disabled or elderly and have little or no income. The president’s budget would cut SSI by reducing benefits for households with more than one SSI recipient. Those cuts, coupled with plans to slash Medicaid, would significantly undermine children with disabilities. Head Start requires that at least 10 percent of enrollees are children with disabilities. For these Head Start children, cutting SSI would drive them deeper into poverty and further threaten their healthy development.
Budget Cuts Would Reduce Quality, Capacity of Head Start 

All Head Start programs must adhere to Head Start Program Performance Standards (HSPPS), which outline the services they are required to provide. Required services include health and developmental screenings; health care referrals and follow up; special services for children with disabilities; nutritious meals; vision and hearing screenings; immunizations; onsite family caseworkers; and home visits. Head Start also connects families with parenting education; adult education; and other social and educational services. Trump’s budget would cut or eliminate funding for nearly all of these services, undermining the capacity of Head Start programs to meet standards.
Comprehensive services are a key reason why Head Start children experience better health outcomes—such as lower BMI scores, healthy eating patterns, and increased likelihood of dental checkups—than their peers who aren’t enrolled. Services are provided directly through Head Start programs or through linkages and referrals with community organizations. Head Start programs are required to help children and families access existing services in the community. If services can’t be found elsewhere, the program must provide them.  This results in fewer dollars for other program services.
Finally, the Community Services Block Grant—proposed for elimination—provides flexible funding for a range of anti-poverty services and funds many agencies that deliver Head Start programs. Without all of these federal supports, most Head Start programs would be unable to meet performance standards, greatly diminishing the quality of services. 

For the Administration to deliver on its “commitment to early childhood outcomes,” it would need to increase funding for Head Start and child care and strengthen the vital programs on which Head Start’s efficacy depends.  Trump’s budget would do the opposite, jeopardizing the health, school readiness, and future success of Head Start children and families. Moreover, failing to adequately fund Head Start would undermine the program’s long-term benefits.
As Congress makes spending decisions for 2018 and the long term, it’s essential that lawmakers maintain the core structure of highly effective federal programs like Medicaid and SNAP. They should also consider new investments in Head Start and other federal programs that improve poor children’s wellbeing and future outcomes.