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Head Start and Early Head Start Pioneers in Early Childhood Development

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Head Start and Early Head Start provide vital help to children and families at the federal poverty level

One of the nation’s most enduring early childhood programs for low-income families is Head Start, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015. First established as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, Head Start and its program for pregnant women and infants, Early Head Start, have provided comprehensive early child care services for more than 34 million low-income children, with the goal of ensuring their overall developmental progress and preparedness for school.

The program operates under the Department of Health and Human Services and is delivered through 1,700 agencies in local communities. Though Head Start’s program administration differs from county-to-county, each program focuses on four key components for children’s developmental progress: education, social services, health care and parental involvement.

Some of the specific services offered through Head Start include children’s immunizations; medical, dental and mental health checkups; outreach activities to families that help determine what their needs are; and opportunities for parents to take a hands-on role in their child’s classroom. Head Start also works with low-income families to eliminate barriers to children’s developmental progress and connects families to housing opportunities, job training and counseling services. 

Early Head Start focuses on pregnant women, infants and toddlers up to age three, and provides services such as home visiting, transportation to daycare and assistance for parents to quit smoking, among other services.

Both programs consistently show positive results and, as a result, carry strong bipartisan support from Congress and the White House. According to data from 2016, Head Start was responsible for ensuring continuous health coverage for over 1 million children and helped identify nearly 134,000 children with special needs. Head Start programs are also shown to help children improve their vocabulary and avoid being held back a grade in school. 

Since FY2008, Head Start and Early Head Start have generally received annual funding increases and federal support for program administration and research.  Head Start programs are also shown to help children improve their vocabulary and avoid being held back a grade in school. However, going into FY2018, Congress will soon need to address the issue of sequestration, which could result in automatic budget cuts and service delays to the program. The Head Start community is also preparing for reauthorization of the program, which is expected to occur in FY2018 or FY2019.

NACo strongly supports two-generation programs like Head Start and Early Head Start that serve as proven pathways out of poverty for children and their parents.


Since FY2008, Head Start and Early Head Start have generally received annual funding increases.

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