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  • The Center for Rural Homelessness

What is Head Start?

By: Katie Baughman, Policy Intern


Head Start, established in 1965 and currently authorized under the Head Start Act of 2007, is a federal education program administered by the Administration for Children and Families, within the US Department of Health and Human Services. It aims to promote school readiness for low-income families and children from birth to age 5. Head Start contains both the Head Start preschool program and the Early Head Start program, which benefits families with infants and toddlers. The programs offer a comprehensive approach to childhood development, providing educational environments and learning experiences for children, health and nutrition services, resources to involve parents in education, and housing and job support for families in need.

Head Start awards direct federal grants to agencies, private organizations, and school systems who then operate Head Start programs in their local communities. Direct federal funding allows each school district or community organization to create an individualized program for their area’s needs. In order to participate in their local Head Start, families generally must meet the definition of “low income” under the Federal Poverty Guidelines or be recipients of SNAP or TANF; homeless children, children with disabilities, and children in foster care also qualify for Head Start. Head Start is a diverse program, with over a third of participating families identifying as Hispanic or Latino and 27% identifying as Black in 2021. The program is active in all fifty states. In FY 2023, Head Start programs were allocated $11,996,820,000, and in 2022, they served over 800,000 children across the country. 


Though Head Start is a national program that serves all types of areas around the country, it is an incredibly important resource specifically for rural communities and families. Many rural areas, especially low-income or remote rural areas, are “childcare deserts,” meaning there are few or no accessible childcare opportunities nearby. Then, rural areas are especially in need of childcare centers, and many families rely on Head Start to provide this. 86% of rural counties have Head Start centers, and in many rural counties, Head Start programs are the only childcare centers.

Head Start also actively provides a variety of services to rural low-income families and children, broadly increasing access to educational services, health and nutrition services, etc. Rural children under 5 are also more likely to experience food insecurity than peers living in urban areas, making the food resources provided at local Head Start programs an important resource. Similarly, the health screenings provided by Head Start are often otherwise inaccessible to low-income families living in rural, remote areas. Head Start programs further employ nearly 50,000 employees in rural communities alone, bringing more job opportunities to rural areas and allowing additional wealth to be brought in as well.

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