Unequal neighborhood availability of Head Start: Exploring patterns in the data

Published: 01.15.2020 Updated: 01.21.2020

All children can benefit from high-quality early care and education because early childhood experiences (defined as the first five years of a child’s life) can have lasting effects on child health and wellbeing.1  Head Start, the largest public early childhood care and education program in the U.S., offers high-quality preschool services for low-income children (defined as 3- and 4-year-olds with family income below 100% of the federal poverty level). However, nationally, only half of the children who are eligible for Head Start are served by the program,2  and some groups of children are less likely than others to be served by Head Start. For example, only 38% of Hispanic eligible children attend Head Start compared with more than half (53%) of black eligible children.

Research shows that having a Head Start center in a child’s immediate neighborhood increases participation among Hispanic and immigrant children.3  Yet, new diversitydatakids.org research shows that, nationally, Hispanic and immigrant children have the worst neighborhood availability of Head Start followed by black children. Overall, white children who are eligible for Head Start have notably better neighborhood availability of Head Start than children of other racial/ethnic groups. These findings are concerning given that nationally Hispanic children now represent the largest share of children eligible for Head Start (36% in 2013-2017), and that together Hispanic and black children - the two groups with the worst neighborhood availability - represent over 60% of eligible children.

Simple measures oversimplify the story

Nationally, only around one-quarter of Head Start eligible children have a Head Start center in their neighborhood. Nationally, the share of children with a center in their immediate neighborhood is similar for white, black and Hispanic children (who altogether comprise 92% of Head Start eligible children). Based on this simple measure, we may conclude that there are no major racial/ethnic differences in neighborhood availability, but this measure does not account for the neighborhood-level demand for Head Start.

While this first, simple measure considers whether eligible children have any access at all to Head Start in their neighborhood (i.e., whether Head Start centers are located near children in need), it does not consider the amount of need (or demand) for Head Start in the neighborhood. Considering the amount of need is crucial, because neighborhoods with a greater need for Head Start have more children competing for often limited seats. This greater competition could act as a barrier blocking some children from attending Head Start.

Once neighborhood demand is considered, inequities emerge

The graph below illustrates the average number of Head Start eligible children per center in children’s neighborhoods. This second measure tells us not only whether a Head Start center is found in the neighborhood, but also indicates whether there are likely enough centers to serve the children in need in the neighborhood.

Here, we find that Hispanic and black children have the worst neighborhood availability of Head Start: there are higher numbers of low-income, young children in the neighborhood relative to the number of Head Start centers available to serve them. Compared to white children, Hispanic and black children live in neighborhoods where there 30 more young children per center. Since the national average size of a Head Start center is 30 children, this difference amounts to a “one Head Start center gap” at the neighborhood level.

We see that Asian children also experience low neighborhood availability of Head Start compared to white children, and that children of immigrant parents have worse neighborhood availability than children of native-born parents.

Neighborhood availability and inequities have not improved over recent years

Between 2014 and 2019, neighborhood availability of Head Start remained relatively consistent and differences between racial/ethnic groups persisted.

Neighborhood availability of Head Start varies by state

Neighborhood availability of Head Start centers varies by state. While some states provide supplemental Head Start funding and programming, Head Start is a federally administered program with grants made directly to Head Start programs. Therefore, state differences in neighborhood availability of Head Start should not be interpreted as a reflection of differences in Head Start policies by state. Instead, they reflect the location of Head Start centers - which is a result of the grants made from the federal government directly to local Head Start grantees - in relation to where children in need live.

The graph below shows substantial state differences in neighborhood availability of Head Start. The share of Head Start eligible children with a center in their neighborhood ranges from 9% in Nevada to 62% in West Virginia.

The average number of eligible children per Head Start center at the neighborhood level also varies widely by state, from 33 children per center in Alaska to 110 children per center in Texas.

Note: While some states provide supplemental Head Start funding and programming, Head Start is a federally administered program with grants made directly to Head Start programs. Results are summarized by state to provide a sense of differences across places in the U.S. and are not intended to point to differences in state-level policies.

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Erin Hardy
Erin Hardy
Co-Research Director
photo of Rebecca Huber ddk staff member
Rebecca Huber
Research Associate
Footnotes
  • 1. Shonkoff, J. P., Boyce, W., & McEwen, B. S. (2009). Neuroscience, molecular biology, and the childhood roots of health disparities: Building a new framework for health promotion and disease prevention. JAMA, 301(21), 2252-2259. doi:10.1001/jama.2009.754.
  • 2. Schmit, S., & Walker, C. (2016). Disparate access: Head Start and CCDBG data by race and ethnicity. Retrieved from website: https://www.ccf.ny.gov/files/1914/5625/2696/Disparate-Access.pd.pdf.
  • 3. Neidell, M., & Waldfogel, J. (2009). Program participation of immigrant children: Evidence from the local availability of Head Start. Economics of Education Review, 28(6), 704-715. doi:10.1016/j.econedurev.2009.06.004.