Renee Kline’s 4-year-old son attends the local Head Start program in Hampshire County, West Virginia, where he spends his days learning the alphabet and counting.
But if the federal government shuts down next week, tens of thousands of children like him will be forced to stay home.
According to the White House, up to 10,000 children across the country would lose access to Head Start programs during a government shutdown, which would begin at midnight Oct. 1 at the time of publication.
Ten Head Start programs are scheduled to receive funding on Oct. 1, and if those funds aren’t available, they’re at risk of having to close their doors.
Child care is neither readily available nor affordable in Hampshire County, Kline said. If Head Start had to close, many people, including her, would have to stay home from work to care for their children.
“This is a direct result of Congress failing to do its job and reach an agreement,” said Tommy Sheridan, deputy director of the National Head Start Association, a central organization for the Head Start workforce and national voice for early childhood education. “This is really a blow to children and families who are already struggling and really need the support of Head Start and Early Head Start.”
Head Start is a free, federally funded early childhood development program designed to promote school readiness for infants, toddlers and preschoolers from low-income households.
In the event of a government shutdown, Head Start programs would be unable to access funds to pay staff and operating costs, said Lori Milam, executive director of the West Virginia Head Start Association, where more than 7,000 children are enrolled in Head Start.
All Head Start programs are federally funded, but differ in how they receive funding and whether they receive additional support from other programs. According to Miliam, some may not even be able to cover a week’s worth of expenses.
Head Start also supports children with identified needs, such as: B. physical and developmental delays, children in foster care and children living in insecure housing. The federal government funds Head Start programs through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Administration for Children and Families.
“Head Start offers children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to reach their full potential through learning, development, health and wellness support in the early years of life,” says Justin van Fleet, president of Theirworld, a global charity focused on early childhood education focuses on childhood development.
Since its inception in 1965, Head Start programs have served more than 38 million children and families in the United States
Children enrolled in Head Start are more likely to complete high school and attend college. Head Start programs have also been shown to break the cycle of poverty by reducing teen parenting and criminal involvement. The programs received nearly $12 billion in funding in 2023.
The programs whose funding is set to end Oct. 1 will be most directly affected by the shutdown — such as Community Action’s Pioneer Valley program in Massachusetts, which enrolls 311 children.
That program was impacted by the closure in 2013, said Clare Higgins, executive director of Community Action Pioneer Valley.
“We stayed open through a combination of different financings. We had extended our credit line with the bank so we could keep the program open. So that’s our goal right now,” she says. Right now they have enough cash to sustain the program for up to two weeks. “We won’t be able to do it after this,” she says.
Children who participate in such programs miss out on nutritious meals and learning basic skills, experts say.
And it wouldn’t just be the 10,000 children who would be affected who could immediately lose access. “If the shutdown were to continue, many more children would be affected,” says Milam.
Kline says Head Start has been a huge help to families like hers. In addition to her 4-year-old, she also has a first-grader who previously went through Head Start. She says it has been extremely helpful in preparing her daughter for school and improving her social-emotional skills. “Head Start helps families get to work. “In addition, it helps our children learn and grow and prepare them for society,” she says.
“We take in some of the lowest income families with significant challenges in meeting the needs of their families,” Higgins says. “This is the place where their children will be cared for, educated and fed.”
All of this would be jeopardized by a shutdown.
“We are deeply concerned that Congress is putting children and families at risk by failing to pass it.” [the bill] for the next financial year and we are very concerned about what will happen in the next few weeks,” says Sheridan.
Dr. Taha F. Khan, MD, MPH is a pediatric neurology resident at Boston Medical Center and a member of the ABC News Medical Unit.