Head Start

Publication Date:

Dec 27, 2018

Key facts about Head Start enrollment

  • In 2016–2017, enrollment for Early Head Start (a program primarily for children younger than age 3 living in poverty) was 211,000, a record high, and enrollment for Head Start (a program primarily for 3- to 5-year-olds living in poverty) was 848,000, a record low.
  • In 2016–2017, 7 percent of Early Head Start enrollees qualified because they were from families experiencing homelessness and 4 percent qualified because they were in foster care, compared with 4 and 2 percent, respectively, for Head Start enrollees. Most other children qualified because they lived in households below the poverty line, or because they were participating in the Supplemental Security Income (for individuals with disabilities) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs.
  • There are wide differences in Head Start enrollment by race among children ages 3 to 5. For example, 79 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native children were enrolled in Head Start in 2016–2017, compared to 68 percent of children of two or more races, 42 percent of black children, 27 percent of Asian children, and 25 percent of white children.

Trends in Head Start

From program year 2007–2008 to 2011–2012, the number of children from birth through age 3 enrolled in Early Head Start increased from 85,000 to 151,000. As a percentage of children in that age group living in poverty,1 this represents an increase from 2.4 to 3.8 percent. Enrollment dropped to 145,000 children in program year 2013–2014, but then rose to 211,000 in program year 2016–2017—a record high, representing 7 percent of children in poverty (Appendix 1).

From program year 2007–2008 to 2009–2010, Head Start enrollment increased from 976,000 to 984,000. However, as a proportion of the number of children ages 3 to 5 living in poverty, it represents a decline from 37 to 32 percent. With the exception of program year 2011–2012, program enrollment continued to fall in this period, to 848,000 in 2016–2017, a record low. Enrollment as a percentage of children in poverty, however, increased to 35 percent in 2016–2017, up from 31 percent in 2015–2016 (Appendix 2).

1. There are children enrolled in Head Start Programs who are not in poverty or for whom poverty status is not determined (including children in foster care, homeless children, and children in families receiving TANF or Supplemental Security Income). However, the number of children in poverty in a given year is a close approximation of eligible children.

Differences by age

Most children in Early Head Start are younger than age 3, and most children in Head Start are ages 3 or 4. In program year 2016–2017, Early Head Start enrollment was nearly evenly divided among children younger than age 1, 1-year-olds, and 2-year-olds. Around 4 percent of enrollees were age 3 (Appendix 1). In Head Start, 50 percent of enrollees were age 4 and 43 percent were age 3. Among 3-year-olds, enrollment was 49 percent of children living in poverty; among 4-year-olds, enrollment was 59 percent of those in poverty (Appendix 2).

Differences by enrollment type

In program year 2016–2017, 7 percent of Early Head Start enrollees qualified because they were from families experiencing homelessness, with 4 percent qualifying because they were in foster care. Another 3 percent who qualified had parental incomes from 100 to 130 percent of the federal poverty level, and 5 percent had parental incomes greater than that (reasons vary); the balance were primarily children in families with incomes below the federal poverty level. Many of the enrollees had been in Early Head Start previously. In 2016–2017, 31 percent of children were enrolled for their second year in the program, and 12 percent were enrolled for a third year or more (Appendix 1).

In Head Start, 4 percent of enrollees were from families experiencing homelessness and 2 percent were in foster care. Around 5 percent had parents with incomes from 100 to 130 percent of the federal poverty level, and another 7 percent had parental incomes greater than that; the balance were primarily children in families with incomes below the federal poverty level. Of all children in Head Start, 30 percent were in their second year of the program, and 5 percent were in their third year or more (Appendix 2).

Differences by race/Hispanic origin*

In 2016–2017, about one in three children enrolled in the Head Start programs was Hispanic (35 percent in Early Head Start and 38 percent in Head Start, which includes Migrant and Seasonal Head Start, a program serving children of migrant and seasonal farm workers) (appendices 1 and 2).

For Early Head Start, 13 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native children (ages 0 to 3) living in poverty were enrolled, compared with 11 percent of children of two or more races, 7 percent of white children, 6 percent of black children, and 4 percent of Asian children living in poverty (Appendix 1).

For Head Start, 79 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native children (ages 3 to 5) living in poverty were enrolled, compared with 68 percent of children of two or more races, 42 percent of black children, 27 percent of Asian children, and 25 percent of white children living in poverty (Appendix 2).

*Hispanic children may be of any race.

State and local estimates

While percentages are not available, the numbers of children enrolled in Head Start programs in 2004 through 2014, by state, are available at https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/about-us/article/head-start-program-facts.

Data and appendices

Data source

  • Data on numbers and percentages of enrollment: Child Trends’ calculations using U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Head Start. (2009–2018). Program Information Report (PIR) data exports [Datasets]. Retrieved from https://hses.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/pir/reports.
  • Poverty data for percentages: U.S. Census Bureau. (2018). CPS Table Creator [Data tool]. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/cps/data/cpstablecreator.html.

Raw data source

Head Start Program Information Reports (PIR).

https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/data-ongoing-monitoring/article/program-information-report-pir

Appendices

Appendix 1. Enrollment in Early Head Start, Percentages by Selected Child Characteristics, and As a Percentage of Children (Ages 0 to 3) in Poverty: Program Years 2007–2008 to 2016–2017

Appendix 2. Enrollment in Head Start, Percentages by Selected Child Characteristics, and As a Percentage of Children (Ages 3 to 5) in Poverty: Program Years 2007–2008 to 2016–2017

Background

Definition

(Early) Head Start enrollment includes children in Migrant and Seasonal (Early) Head Start and AIAN (Early) Head Start. Percentages by race, Hispanic origin, and primary language include pregnant mothers enrolled in (Early) Head Start.

Data for children in poverty include all children, related to the householder, living in civilian housing. The poverty data do not include children in foster care.

Suggested Citation

Child Trends Databank. (2015). Head start. Available at: https://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=head-start