Discretionary Spending

Function 500 - Education, Training, Employment, and Social Services

Eliminate Head Start

CBO periodically issues a compendium of policy options (called Options for Reducing the Deficit) covering a broad range of issues, as well as separate reports that include options for changing federal tax and spending policies in particular areas. This option appears in one of those publications. The options are derived from many sources and reflect a range of possibilities. For each option, CBO presents an estimate of its effects on the budget but makes no recommendations. Inclusion or exclusion of any particular option does not imply an endorsement or rejection by CBO.

Billions of Dollars 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024 2025 2026 2017-2021 2017-2026
Change in Spending                        
  Budget authority 0 -9.5 -9.7 -9.9 -10.1 -10.3 -10.5 -10.7 -11.0 -11.2 -39.2 -92.9
  Outlays 0 -3.6 -9.1 -9.6 -9.8 -10.0 -10.2 -10.4 -10.6 -10.8 -32.1 -84.0

This option would take effect in October 2017.

The Department of Health and Human Service’s Head Start programs provide comprehensive development services, including pre-kindergarten education, for children in low-income families. The Head Start program serves primarily 3- and 4-year-old preschoolers, and the Early Head Start program provides services to pregnant women and child care to children under age 3. (In this analysis, “Head Start” refers to both programs collectively.) Head Start is administered by the Department of Health and Human Services, but services are provided by state or local governments or by private nonprofit or for-profit institutions. Children in foster care, homeless children, and children from families that receive public assistance (such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or Supplemental Security Income) are eligible for Head Start services, regardless of income. In 2015, roughly 1 million children were enrolled in Head Start.

This option would eliminate Head Start, resulting in savings of $84 billion between 2018 and 2026, the Congressional Budget Office estimates.

The main argument for this option is that many of the children expected to be enrolled in Head Start in the future would be enrolled in an alternative preschool or child care programs if Head Start was eliminated. Those alternative programs include private as well as public programs. For example, several states have instituted a universal pre-K program with the goal of enrolling all 4-year-olds in pre-K. If Head Start was eliminated, most of the children currently enrolled in Head Start in such states would be enrolled in the state-sponsored programs, and their families would likely pay no or only partial tuition. Children in states where such a program was not available could be enrolled in private preschools, although the tuition costs for such programs would most likely be higher than those for public programs.

The main argument against this option is that some children from low-income families would not be enrolled in any preschool program if Head Start was eliminated. Young children who did not attend any program would enter kindergarten less prepared than those who did attend such programs, and research suggests that they might do less well in school and earn less as adults than they would if they had attended preschool. Consequently, economic growth could be lower in the future if Head Start was eliminated. In addition, eliminating federal subsidies for child care would place an additional burden on the resources of low-income families.