Demand From Newly Eligible Families Adds to Wait for Head Start Programs

By Deborah L. Cohen — March 25, 1992 6 min read

Others also said that because program costs per child have increased, the figures proposed by the President for expansion would cut into the quality of services. Some said they have already moved to double sessions or to cut back elsewhere.

She looked up the program in the telephone book after observing how a neighbor’s child blossomed socially and academically after attending early-childhood programs.

Today, however, her son is still on a Head Start waiting list.

“I had built him up and told him about school, and he was really looking forward to learning things,’' Ms. Stanley recalled this month. “Then I had to go back and say, ‘Well honey, it’s full; you have to wait.’ ''

Ms. Stanley, whose husband lost his job as a maintenance worker at a hotel in November, is one of many parents affected by the recession in Massachusetts and elsewhere whose children will have to wait for the popular federally funded preschool program--and may not get in.

“I was a little disappointed that I had to wait--I thought it was an automatic thing,’' said Ms. Stanley, who had hoped to enroll Courtney, who is now 4, at age 3.

Cheryl Lyons, a single mother from the same area, put her daughter Stacia on the waiting list at age 2 and has been waiting for a slot for two and a half years. She has been unable to work during that time.

Parents who are down on their luck and newly eligible for services are flocking to Head Start all over the country, program directors report. And, despite increases in federal funding in recent years, they say, many programs cannot keep pace.

Waiting Lists Abound

The increased demand in Massachusetts is being fueled by a potent combination of high unemployment, high cost of living, growing numbers of young children, and heavy cuts in state-subsidized day care.

About 4,500 3- and 4-year-olds are on waiting lists for 30 programs funded to serve 9,636 children, said Patricia A. Daley, who chairs the Massachusetts Head Start Directors’ Association. The Head Start program in Boston, which serves 2,200 children, has a waiting list of 1,000--a 300 percent jump over previous years, officials estimate.

But reports of expanded lists, said Ms. Daly, are coming “from programs of all types and all sizes--urban, rural, suburban.’'

Sandra Waddell, who chairs the New England Head Start Association and directs the Head Start program operated by the North Shore Community Action Programs, which serves 159 children, said its waiting list for the coming school year has already reached 172.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in 17 years,’' she said.

“People who have not in the past been income-eligible are now knocking on the doors,’' Fran Collins, the director of the Cambridge Head Start program, observed.

In addition to the state’s extended high unemployment, increased Head Start demand in Massachusetts has been compounded by the elimination of 8,000 to 10,000 subsidized day-care slots in two and a half years and by a “baby boomlet’’ of children under age 5, said Douglas S. Baird, the president of Associated Day Care Services, a charitable child-care agency in the Boston area.

‘New Kind of Poor’

While the situation in Massachusetts is among the most extreme, it is far from unique.

In Rhode Island, “every Head Start program is reporting considerably longer waiting lists,’' said Lynda J. Dickinsen, the executive director of Child Inc., a Head Start grantee. The state--which she estimated was reaching one in four eligible children several years ago--today may not be reaching one in six, she said. The governor, meanwhile, has proposed a 15 percent cut in state Head Start funding.

Donald Hutchinson, the child-development director of Southern New Hampshire Services Inc., a Head Start grantee in the Manchester, N.H., area, said his program also has enough children on waiting lists to fill three classrooms.

Even in “places where we have historically just about filled classrooms,’' he said, “we now have small waiting lists.’'

Such reports are not limited to New England.

“We are now getting a new kind of poor people who are not accustomed to having to depend on assistance for anything,’' said Blanche Russ, the president of the Region 6 Head Start Association, which serves Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Ms. Russ, who is also the chief executive officer for the nonprofit human-services agency in San Antonio that serves 3,156 Head Start children at 50 centers, said the program’s waiting list had climbed from its usual 2,000 to 3,500 by February. About 800 slots will open up when the oldest children enter school this fall, but by then the lists may be longer.

“These rolls are being compounded every day,’' said Ms. Russ, who noted that some 32,000 children under age 5 qualify for Head Start in the San Antonio-Bexar County area.

“A lot of the ‘new poor’ may have been unemployed for three or four years and have now exhausted their unemployment [and other] benefits,’' said Mac McKeever, the grantee deputy director for the Genesee County (Mich.) Community Action Agency’s Head Start program, which serves the Flint area.

Mr. McKeever noted that his area has been hard hit by layoffs by General Motors. Centers in his program, which serves 1,500 Head Start children, are drawing waiting lists ranging from 20 to 100 with very little recruiting, he said.

“Before we averaged 10 to 20, but we’d go out to get them,’' Mr. McKeever said.

Concern for Traditional Clients

McFarland Bragg, the president of the Illinois Head Start Association and the director of a Head Start program in Peoria, said his program still has a waiting list despite an expansion in the number of slots.

The area, he said, has been affected by an extended labor dispute at Caterpillar Inc., its largest employer, and by cuts in the state’s General Assistance program that may affect single fathers’ ability to provide child support.

While trying to accommodate the rising tide of new applicants, many program directors say the strains of the economy are making it harder to serve their traditional clients.

“We still don’t service the number of children who were eligible before the economic downturn, so it’s sort of a double whammy,’' said Marie Galvin, the Head Start director for Action for Boston Community Development Inc., Boston’s anti-poverty agency.

As families’ needs become more severe, and other services--ranging from welfare benefits to health care to clothing allowances--fall prey to budget cuts, Ms. Waddell said, “we are having to spend more social-service time helping parents find food and clothing, trying to fit homeless children into the system.’'

“Head Start may be getting richer,’' she said, “but all the other resources around us are drying up, so we’re having to spend money ... that we didn’t have to before.’'

Others noted that families that had received state-subsidized day care but lost their jobs and no longer qualify for those programs are also turning to Head Start. Since most Head Start programs operate only about four hours a day, those seeking full-time work still need other child care.

Under current Head Start guidelines, a family of four can have a gross annual income of no more than $13,950 to qualify.

Proposed Funding Increase

Many directors pointed out that the number of slots in their programs has grown in recent years as a result of increased state and federal Head Start funding. The program is funded at $2.2 billion in the current fiscal year and serves 622,000 children, up from 450,970 in 1983. President Bush has proposed a record $600-million boost for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, which would bring the total number of children served to 779,206, according to the federal Head Start Bureau.

“It’s terrific, and we’re more than pleased [with the pending increase], but quantitatively it will make a small dent in the waiting list,’' Ms. Daly of the Massachusetts Head Start Directors’ Association said.

Others also said that because program costs per child have increased, the figures proposed by the President for expansion would cut into the quality of services. Some said they have already moved to double sessions or to cut back elsewhere.

A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 1992 edition of Education Week as Demand From Newly Eligible Families Adds to Wait for Head Start Programs