Head Start Is Missing the Population It’s Designed to Serve

A new report shows which states are the best – and which are the worst – at providing access to early childhood education.

By Lisa Schohl

Despite mounting evidence about the importance of early childhood education, a new report finds that fewer than half of all poor children nationally have access to the federal Head Start program and that only 5 percent of poor infants and toddlers have access to Early Head Start, a federal program aimed at poor children from birth through age 2. The study also finds wide disparities in access to these programs state by state and by race, with Latino and Asian children having the lowest levels of access to early childhood programs.

The report, by the nonprofit Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), finds that only 43 percent of all eligible children have access to the federal preschool program Head Start. This includes just 36 percent of poor Asian children, 38 percent of Latinos and 54 percent of African Americans.

For Early Head Start, the federal program aimed at younger children, access is even lower, with only 6 percent of poor African-American children, 5 percent of Latinos and 4 percent of Asians enrolled in the program.

While some states – such as North Dakota, Alaska and the District of Columbia – did far better than the national average in ensuring that poor children had access to these programs, other states – such as Nevada, Delaware and North Carolina – performed exceptionally poorly.

Disparities by race from state to state were also stark. CLASP reports, for example, that only four states even had enough eligible Asian children to report access by this group: Texas (11 percent), Minnesota (27 percent), New York (33 percent) and California (41 percent). In general, the report found that no state was reaching a majority of eligible Asian children with Head Start, that only 11 states were reaching a majority of Latinos and that just 18 states were reaching a majority of African-American children.

Stephanie Schmit, senior policy analyst at CLASP and co-author of the report, says that researchers aren’t yet sure why access to these programs is so low but believes that inadequate funding and state-by-state policy differences might be to blame. CLASP also examined the access that eligible children had to child care subsidies through the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant and found low levels of access to this program as well, particularly among Hispanic or Latino children. Schmit says it’s too early to form concrete recommendations, but that CLASP is calling for states to assess how their policies affect minorities. The group is also calling for more direct outreach to groups that work with minority children, and for greater government investments to meet the need.

In the meantime, however, tens of thousands of low-income children are missing a vital opportunity for getting ahead.

Overwhelming evidence points to the long-lasting benefits of high-quality early childhood education – not only for poor children and their parents, but for society as a whole. A 2014 study by the White House Council of Economic Advisers suggests that greater investments in early learning would translate to societal benefits of “roughly $8.60 for every $1 spent, about half of which comes from increased earnings for children when they grow up.” In addition to earnings, other adult outcomes these initiatives can influence include health, educational achievement and even involvement in the criminal justice system.

“High-quality child care and early education can build a strong foundation for young children’s healthy development, yet many low-income children who could most benefit lack access to early childhood opportunities,” Schmit said.