In Hampshire County, West Virginia, where Renee Kline’s 4-year-old son attends the neighbourhood Head Start programme, he spends his days studying the alphabet and counting.
However, hundreds of vulnerable children like him will be forced to stay at home if the federal government shuts down the next week.
According to the White House, during a government shutdown, which as of publication would begin at midnight on October 1st, as many as 10,000 vulnerable children nationwide would lose access to Head Start programmes.
On October 1, ten Head Start programmes are expected to get money; without it, they run the possibility of having to close.
Since childcare is scarce and expensive in Hampshire County, many parents, including Kline, may have to skip work in order to care for their vulnerable children if Head Start is forced to close.
The National Head Start Association, a key organisation for the Head Start workforce and the voice of early childhood education nationally, says Tommy Sheridan, its deputy director, “That is a direct result of Congress not doing their job and not coming up with an agreement.” This is a punch to families and kids who are already having a hard time and who really need the help that Head Start and Early Head Start can offer.
Infants, toddlers, and preschoolers from low-income households can benefit from the free, federally supported Head Start early childhood development programme, which works to enhance school readiness.
According to Lori Milam, Executive Director of the West Virginia Head Start Association, which oversees the Head Start programmes for more than 7,000 vulnerable children in the state, during a federal shutdown, Head Start programmes would not be able to access money to cover staff salaries and running costs.
All Head Start programmes receive government funds, but there are differences in how they receive it and if they also get support from other programmes. Miliam claims that some people could not even be able to pay for a week’s worth of bills.
Vulnerable children with specific needs, such as those who have physical or developmental disabilities, are in foster care, or have unstable housing are also supported by Head Start. Through the Administration for Children and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the federal government supports Head Start programmes.
According to Justin van Fleet, president of Theirworld, a worldwide nonprofit organisation specialising in early childhood development, “Head Start gives children from the most marginalised backgrounds the opportunity to reach their full potential through learning, development, health and wellness support in the earliest years of life.”
More than 38 million children and families have benefited from Head Start programmes since they began in the United States in 1965.
Children who participate in Head Start are more likely to complete high school and enrol in college. Programmes like Head Start have been observed to end the cycle of poverty by lowering teen pregnancies and criminal activity. In 2023, the programmes were given close to $12 billion in financing.
The programmes that are scheduled to lose financing on October 1 will be affected the most severely by the shutdown, including the Community Action Pioneer Valley programme in Massachusetts, where 311 children are enrolled.
According to Clare Higgins, Executive Director of Community Action Pioneer Valley, that programme was impacted by the 2013 shutdown.
“We managed to remain open by combining various sources of revenue. In order to maintain the programme, we had the bank increase our credit limit. Therefore, it is our current objective, she explains. They currently have sufficient funds on hand to operate the programme for up to two weeks. “After that, we won’t be able to,” she asserts.
According to experts, children enrolling in programmes like this would miss out on healthy meals and gaining crucial skills.
And more people would be impacted than simply the 10,000 kids who would lose access right now. More kids would be affected if the closure persisted, according to Milam.
Kline claims that families just like her own have benefited greatly from Head Start. She also has a first-grader who has previously attended Head Start in addition to her four-year-old. She claims that it has been very beneficial for working on her daughter’s social and emotional abilities as well as getting her ready for school. “Head Start supports families’ employment opportunities. Additionally, it aids in our kids’ learning, development, and preparation for society, according to her.
According to Higgins, “We take some of the most families with the lowest incomes and the greatest challenges in terms of providing for their families.” “This is where their children are taken care of, educated, and fed.”
A shutdown would jeopardise everything.
We’re highly concerned that Congress is endangering vulnerable children and families by failing to adopt [the measure] for the upcoming fiscal year, and we are also really worried about what will transpire over the coming few weeks, according to Sheridan.