The Deep Poverty Crisis Demands an Expansion of Head Start and Early Head Start

National Head Start Association
5 min readMay 20, 2021


Due to limited funding, tens of thousands of young children living in deep poverty lack access to Head Start and Early Head Start. Write Congress TODAY to urge them to start with Head Start in any expansion of our nation’s investment in early childhood education and support.

Deep poverty exists when family income is below 50% of the federal poverty line, or less than $10,400 for a single parent with two children.

Nationally 9% of young children live in deep poverty, but that figure is double — 18% — for young Black children and 15% for American Indian Alaskan Native children.

Haven’t heard of this crisis-within-the-crisis of child poverty before? You are not alone.

How Does Deep Poverty Affect Children and Families?

Young children in deep poverty are nearly three times more likely to have an intellectual disability or developmental delay than non-poor children

In April, Dr. Sheila Smith and Sophie Nguyen with the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) at the Bank Street School of Education engaged state policy leaders in the Head Start community in a data-driven, 50-state exploration of deep poverty, including a discussion on how Head Start and Early Head Start can tailor their work to reach and support this especially at-risk population of children and families.

According to the NCCP, children in deep poverty are not only eligible for Head Start and Early Head Start based on income, but they are also at heightened risk for outcomes that negatively affect child development. Compared to a child in an average American family, children living in deep poverty are:

  • Nearly twice as likely to be born at low birth weight than non-poor children
  • Four times more likely to have a physical impairment than non-poor children
  • Nearly three times as likely to have an intellectual disability or developmental delay than non-poor children

Alarming Disparities Across the Country: By Race, Ethnicity, and Geography

Left: There are large racial and ethnic differences in deep poverty rates. Right: Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico have the highest rates of deep poverty for children

As with all issues affecting children and families in America, disparities by race and ethnicity are alarming and important for practitioners and policymakers to understand. These disparities are driven by many causes, including racism and discrimination. They also vary widely by geography, indicating the importance of making place-based investments. See the full 50-state NCCP report on deep poverty from October 2020 here.

Looking Towards a Multi-Generational Solution

NCCP explained that supporting children in deep poverty also means supporting their parents and caregivers through multigenerational solutions like Head Start and Early Head Start. NCCP’s 2020 report found that parents in deep poverty are most likely to be unemployed (31%) and most likely to feel socially isolated.

Head Start’s family goal-setting practices help parents and caregivers to identify and pursue educational and career aspirations, and couple these workforce development efforts with connections to mental health resources, job training, and more.

Unemployment in parents in deep poverty

Parents in deep poverty are most likely to be unemployed. Strikingly, parents in deep poverty experience a level of social isolation that is higher than their peers who are also poor, but better off economically.

Social isolation in parents in deep poverty

Parents in deep poverty are less likely to say “There are people in my neighborhood I can count on.” A score of 2 indicates parents “somewhat disagree,” 3 means “somewhat agree,” and 4 means “definitely agree”


NCCP suggests that addressing the issue of deep poverty starts with reversing the trend in America to deny support to struggling families with young children. As NCCP notes, cash assistance, food benefits (SNAP) and rental assistance reach only a fraction of families who have a clear need for support. President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, passed in March, and his proposed American Families Plan are both opportunities to reduce overall child poverty and address deep poverty, including through an expanded child tax credit, which puts money directly in the hands of families each month to meet basic needs.

The work to end child poverty cannot stop there.

NCCP leaders also called for investments to expand programs like Head Start and Early Head Start that promote nurturing parent-child relationships, focus on early learning and development, support families’ goals and aspirations, and have proven short- and long-term positive outcomes.

In this vein, NCCP leaders offered three challenges to Head Start:

  1. Balance the goal of enrolling more families in deep poverty with the goal of mixed-income classrooms, given the evidence about the positive impacts on young children of mixed-income early childhood settings.
  2. Expand outreach and enrollment of children and families representing a disproportionate share of those in deep poverty, especially Black, American Indian Alaska Native, and Hispanic children and families.
  3. Advocate for increased per-child funding to allow Head Start and Early Head Start programs to offer more intensive interventions and support for children and families in deep poverty. One proposed idea is an expanded Head Start program model specifically designed to serve children in deep poverty, as well as seeking supplemental grants from states.

When asked whether expanding Head Start’s already robust data collection should include information about the deep poverty status of enrolled children and families, Dr. Smith responded affirmatively, “We think it is very important because of the severity of hardship families in deep poverty face. Families in deep poverty fare significantly worse than families in poverty.”

NCCP leaders also noted that research demonstrates that parents and families in deep poverty exhibit strong coping behaviors and stronger absolute ratings of mental health status than might be expected given the economic and social hardships they face. As Dr. Smith noted, “Building on those assets is as important, if not more important, than addressing the struggles.”

All charts in this blog are from the NCCP. We are grateful for the opportunity to share these charts with the Head Start community.



National Head Start Association

NHSA is a nonprofit organization committed to the belief that every child, regardless of circumstances at birth, has the ability to succeed in life.