Panel Paper: The Availability of Head Start and Early Head Start: Variability across Geography

Thursday, November 7, 2019
I.M Pei Tower: 2nd Floor, Tower Court A (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Taryn Morrissey, American University

Early childhood is a developmentally sensitive period (Duncan, Ziol-Guest, & Kalil, 2010; Shonkoff & Garner, 2012), and a growing literature demonstrates how community and neighborhood exposure to risk in the early years of life shape immediate and later-life outcomes (e.g., Chetty, Hendren, & Katz 2015; Evans & Kim 2012; Sharkey 2016). A variety of public and private assistance programs support low-income children, who disproportionately face adverse experiences tied to place. These include Head Start (HS) and Early Head Start (EHS), federal programs created in the 1960s to provide education, health, and comprehensive services to young children and their families, serving about 40 percent of poor three- and four-year-old children and 5 percent of poor children under three (NIEER, 2017). In FY 2017, $9.7 billion was appropriated for HS and EHS (ACF, 2017).

Despite evidence that HS and EHS participation can support children’s short- and long-term well-being (Currie & Thomas, 1995; Deming, 2009; DHHS, 2002; Ludwig & Miller, 2007; Morris et al., 2018), there has been relatively little examination of the how provision of these programs varies across geographic characteristics, including urbanicity, poverty, and other demographic factors. Recent work shows stark geographic disparities in access to high-quality early care and education programs within and across metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas (Jessen-Howard et al, 2018; Malik et al., 2018; Reinvestment Fund, 2018). Such findings are consistent with evidence that suburbs and rural communities lag far behind cities in the availability of human service and public safety net programs that disproportionately benefit low-income children (Allard 2017).

There are several reasons to be concerned about spatial mismatches across programs serving children. First, there is evidence that greater proximity to programs of assistance increases utilization and take-up (Allard 2009). Issues of access may be particularly acute for critical early childhood programs and assistance to low-income families with children because of the costs imposed by complex commutes. Lower access to quality programs of assistance should lead to poorer child outcomes across a host of measures. Such features of community may help explain why certain areas help improve mobility trajectories for young children more than others (e.g., Chetty et al., 2018). Apart from their consequences for child well-being, mismatches in access to early childhood programs or assistance for children also may affect the labor force participation of parents (Morrissey 2017).

This study descriptively examines the geography of HS and EHS and how their location and characteristics, including the number of children enrolled, teacher educational qualifications, and the services they provide (e.g., full/half day) vary with community characteristics. We merge data on HS and EHS location and characteristics from the 2016 Program Information Report (PIR) with zip code-level information from the American Community Survey on rates of child poverty, female employment, child population, urbanicity, and public assistance participation (e.g., SNAP receipt), to better understand how the availability of the primary public early childhood programs in the U.S. varies with local need. Findings have implications for targeting areas of greatest need with more early childhood education services.