If you’re new around here, I do these 101 looks at government feeding programs about once a month. Check out the other government program 101 posts!
SNAP (Food Stamps)
NSLP (School Lunch Program)
2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the American Government’s Head Start Program. The program was designed as part of President Johnson’s “Great Society” war on poverty. Essentially, Head Start is a funnel. It establishes guidelines and distributes grants of federal government funds to early childhood programs that meet those guidelines. In theory, although the federal government is handing out the funding, the care of children is still being handled on a local level.
Who benefits from Head Start? In theory, we all do. In reality, the jury is out. Some see this as a vital government program while others are disappointed in the cost and the results. The program is supposed to benefit children in utero through kindergarten with education and nutrition and healthcare services that give them a “head start” or more accurately, keep them from starting out behind, when they enter school.
There is no doubt that infant and preschool nutrition is vital. A child who starts life with nutritional deficiencies may never catch up. And for many families right here in the U.S., that threat is a distinct possibility. Head Start supports the programs that stand between children and that fate. It begins with programs that educate expectant mothers. Once a child is born, Head Start sponsored programs provide nutrition and parenting education for the parents, medical and dental care for children, and nutritional feeding programs at daycare centers and preschools. As a child nears kindergarten age, Head Start funds preschool education to prepare the kids for classroom learning.
Head Start is a controversial program because it is expensive and it’s nearly impossible to nail down what role it has in ensuring that children succeed. In recent years, the federal government has been cracking down on the accountability of programs that benefit from Head Start. From the Atlantic: “Operating under authority from a 2007 law signed by George W. Bush, the Obama administration has started requiring Head Start providers that perform poorly on federal audits to compete against other local providers—and win—to keep their grants for the next five years. If all goes according to plan, by the end of 2014 the federal government will have reviewed every Head Start program under new performance criteria. So far, more than 350 of some 1,700 Head Start grant recipients have been forced to compete for their funding, and many more will be required to do so in the years ahead.”
So how much money are we talking about here? In 1966, the program first full year, Head Start cost $198,900,000, and benefited 561,000 people (average cost of $354.55/person). The cost of Head Start has increased steadily over the last fifty years, as has the enrollment. In 2012, Head Start had a price tag of $7,968,544,000 and benefited 956,497 people (average cost of $8,300/person). With that large of a price tag, it’s good to see that the government is cracking down on underperforming programs.
I’ll admit that I am personally torn over the value of Head Start. It seems so very expensive, and the benefits of this costly program are unclear. I have an easier time supporting programs like SNAP, WIC or the National School Lunch Program which actually provide food directly to those (mostly children) in need. In my mind that seems a lot more concrete, obviously effective, and overseeable (is that even a word? It is now…) It has been eye-opening to research these programs and discover the way the federal government doesn’t “do” things, it funds things the states do and loosely oversees them. I have been both pleased that these programs are available for those who need them, and fearful of the opportunities for abuse of the system.
As with all of the programs I have covered in the 101 series, I encourage you to do some homework and evaluate the benefits and drawbacks before you take political action. We are responsible for the votes we cast and the political action we take, so let’s make sure we have all the facts straight and let that guide our consciences and our political actions.
Do you have additional information or resources about Head Start and/or government feeding programs? Enlighten us by sharing in the comments, but remember to be respectful. Both sides of the political spectrum care deeply about this country and its children. They just have different ideas about how to best get there.
A couple webpages that I used in my research for this post:
Head Start website – http://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/hslc