Program Provides High-Quality, Affordable Early Childhood Care and Education to Lower-Income Americans

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Tina Smith (D-MN) joined a group of her colleagues calling on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to expand and streamline eligibility for the Head Start program.  Expanded and simplified access would help ensure that more families in Minnesota and across the country are able to access affordable, high-quality childcare, education and health services and reduce administrative burden for programs.  Along with Senator Smith, the letter was signed by Senators Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Bob Casey (D-PA), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), Tim Kaine (D-VA), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

“We write to ask the Department of Health and Human Services to expand access to affordable, high-quality early childhood education by using your existing authority to ensure that more young children and families are eligible for Head Start programs,” the Senators wrote to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra.  

The Senators continued, “For more than 55 years, Head Start programs across the country have provided vital early childhood education to children from low-income households. Additionally, Head Start programs provide wraparound support to parents and entire families, including health, wellness, and nutrition services. However, many families who could benefit from Head Start’s vital services earn slightly above the federal poverty level (FPL) and may be ineligible.”

The Senators are urging Secretary Becerra to expand eligibility for the program to include families that receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

“Minnesota Head Start programs support adding WIC and SNAP to the list of things that comprise categorical eligibility for Head Start programs.  The addition of WIC/SNAP will provide programs the flexibility to serve families that are at the highest risk that may have no other avenue to get into programs.  These are single working parents with very young children who have limited resources, not just in terms of finances, but in terms of family and access.  They often don't qualify for TANF/MFIP due to work history.  These are grandparents caring for their grandchildren full time.  Adding WIC/SNAP will help close some of the gaps in the current eligibility criteria thusly removing barriers for children and families to get into programs,” said Kraig Gratke, Executive Director of the Minnesota Head Start Association. “We are very excited to see Senator Smith working to make this happen, so the families in Minnesota and across the country, can get into Head Start programs that can stabilize families and help them move forward.”

“It is clear that the eligibility criteria have become increasingly detached from the needs of children and families across the nation. Adding SNAP and WIC to the categorical eligibility list is a simple and swift action we can take to mitigate the increasing barriers that children and families face,” said National Head Start Association Executive Director, Yasmina Vinci.

Throughout her time in the Senate, Smith has led efforts to expand access to childcare and early education. Last year, Smith and Warren led the successful push for $50 billion for childcare in COVID-19 relief, including $40 billion in the American Rescue Plan.  She has also supported a host of bills to expand access to childcare and Head Start including the Child Care Supply Improvement Act, which she authored, that would provide assistance for childcare facilities, support childcare providers in areas related to safety and quality, help providers navigate important health and safety requirements, and support childcare businesses. The bill would also support states and tribes in improving the administration of childcare programs and would help determine how best to use resources in order to support communities in Minnesota and across the country.

To read the Senators’ letter to Secretary Becerra, click here or see below:

Dear Secretary Becerra,

We write to ask the Department of Health and Human Services to expand access to affordable, high-quality early childhood education by using your existing authority to ensure that more young children and families are eligible for Head Start programs.

For more than 55 years, Head Start programs across the country have provided vital early childhood education to children from low-income households. Additionally, Head Start programs provide wraparound support to parents and entire families, including health, wellness, and nutrition services. However, many families who could benefit from Head Start’s vital services earn slightly above the federal poverty level (FPL) and may be ineligible.

Currently, families are eligible for Head Start programs when they meet up to 100 percent of the Department FPL, and 35 percent of slots can be designated for children and families earning up to 130 percent of the FPL. The FPL is equivalent to $27,750 for a family of four. Additionally, Section 645 [42 U.S.C. 9840] of the Head Start Act makes children eligible when their families receive certain public assistance, as defined by the Department. Under current Head Start requirements, this so-called “categorical eligibility” applies to families that receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), but does not include other public assistance programs used by some of our country’s most high-need families.

We ask the Department to expand Head Start’s public assistance categorical eligibility to include children in families that participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) programs. Adding SNAP and WIC will also underscore the critical links between nutrition support and early childhood education, and help connect pregnant WIC recipients to Early Head Start services at a critical and vulnerable juncture in their lives. 

We hope that the Department will make this change so that more high-need families and their young children can more easily access critical Head Start programs across the country. Thank you for your consideration.

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