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 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024 2025 2026 2027 2028 2019-
Change in Spending  
  Budget authority 0 -10 -11 -11 -11 -11 -11 -12 -12 -12 -42 -101
  Outlays 0 -4 -10 -10 -11 -11 -11 -11 -12 -12 -35 -92

This option would take effect in October 2019.


The two Head Start programs provide comprehensive development services, including prekindergarten education, for children from 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 for children under age 3. (In this option, "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, children who are homeless, and children from families that receive public assistance (from programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or Supplemental Security Income) qualify for Head Start regardless of their families' income.


This option would eliminate Head Start.

Effects on the Budget

Provided that federal appropriations were reduced accordingly, this option would save $92 billion between 2020 and 2028, the Congressional Budget Office estimates. Head Start served roughly 900,000 children in 2017 at an average cost of about $10,000 per child, for a total budgetary cost of $9 billion. Outlays for the program are projected to rise to $12 billion by 2028, CBO estimates. That estimate is based on projections of budget authority and on historical trends in spending. Eliminating Head Start would therefore reduce budgetary costs by an average of about $10 billion per year over the coming decade.

CBO projects that about 40 percent of the budget authority provided for Head Start in a given year is spent in that year, in part because of the timing of contracts with grantee institutions, and the remainder is spent over the next few years. As a result, the reduction in outlays in 2020 would be smaller than the reduction in budget authority in that year because those outlays would include spending from the budget authority granted in the preceding few years.

For any given percentage cut to budget authority, outlays over the 10-year period would decline by less than budget authority. For example, outlays would decline by roughly 90 percent if Head Start was eliminated and by roughly 45 percent if budget authority was reduced by 50 percent. Because CBO's baseline projections of budget authority for discretionary programs reflect the assumption that current appropriations will continue with adjustments for inflation (as described in this chapter's introduction), uncertainty in the budget authority estimates primarily results from uncertainty in the amount of funding that the Congress will appropriate for Head Start in the coming years. A minor amount of additional uncertainty surrounds the rate at which outlays would occur.

Other Effects

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 alternative preschool or child care programs (both public and private) if Head Start was eliminated. For example, several states have instituted a universal prekindergarten program with the goal of enrolling all 4-year-olds. Most of the children currently enrolled in Head Start in such states would instead be enrolled in the state-sponsored programs, and their families would probably 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 exceed 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 as a result. 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 some low-income families.