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

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
  • 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

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
Social isolation in parents in deep poverty


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.

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.



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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.