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Denying Kids a Head Start Is Wrong

February 9, 2018
Sara Mead
US News and World Report

On Thursday, Vox reported that the Trump administration is considering promulgating new rules that could force immigrants to leave the United States if they received a variety of public benefits, including enrolling their U.S. born children in Head Start. As someone who studies and works with Head Start programs, I find this proposal deeply troubling. It is both morally wrong and deeply short-sighted.

Head Start is a federally funded comprehensive child development program that was created as part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty to break the cycle of poverty by improving early learning and development for young children, while also improving their families’ economic well-being and ability to support their children’s learning. Head Start programs do not solicit or report information on children’s or their parents’ immigration or citizenship status, so we don’t actually know how many children these proposals could affect.

But in a nation where one in four children under age six has a foreign born parent (and 96 percent of those children are themselves U.S. citizens), the proposed policy has the potential to affect a significant percentage of the nearly 1 million U.S. children enrolled in Head Start.

The 1996 welfare reform legislation, known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, limited immigrants’ eligibility for many “federal public benefits.” But Head Start is not considered a “public benefit” under that law, and past federal rules and guidance have reiterated this. As such, the Trump administration’s proposed rule would go against decades of established policy and practice.

Moreover, discouraging immigrant parents from enrolling their U.S. citizen children in Head Start is horribly short sighted. Research shows that adults who attend Head Start as children have better long-term life outcomes: They are more likely to graduate high school, attend college and obtain some form of postsecondary education, and are better parents. These outcomes don’t just benefit Head Start children themselves: They also yield significant benefits to society at large, in the form of a more productive workforce, greater tax contributions and reduced need for public assistance in the future. (Remember: we’re talking about children who are U.S. citizens here.)