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Head Start Program Reduces Likelihood of Poverty in Adulthood

Children who participate in the Head Start program are more likely to attend college and less likely to experience poverty in adulthood, according to a University of Michigan (UM) report published in late November.

Head Start, launched in 1965 as part of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” initiative, helps U.S. children in low-income families prepare for entering elementary school through school-readiness programs.

The UM study sought to assess the impact Head Start enrollment has had on the economic well-being of child participants once they reached adulthood.

Researchers compared the current economic status of adults who were not eligible as children to participate in the program when it began (age 6 or older in 1965) with those who were (or became) eligible during the first 15 years of the program.

“Participating children achieved 0.29 more years of education, were 2.1 percent more likely to complete high school, 8.7 percent more likely to enroll in college, and 19 percent more likely to complete college,” the report said. Participants also saw a “12-percent reduction in adult poverty and a 29-percent reduction in public assistance receipt.”

The researchers suggest that “practices outside of preschool curriculum,” such as health screenings and nutritious meals, were likely “important mechanisms for the program’s effects on disadvantaged children.”

Assessing savings on public assistance resulting from Head Start’s positive impact on participants’ economic status in adulthood, the report set forth a conservative estimate of a 2.4 percent rate of return on investment.

“Hungry children have trouble focusing and learning. Children who can’t see or hear well can’t keep up with children who can,” said Martha Bailey, professor of economics and research professor in the Population Studies Center at the Institute for Social Research, in a press release announcing the report’s publication. “Head Start did a lot of seemingly small things like giving kids healthy meals and helping them get glasses or hearing aids. This helped disadvantaged kids learn in preschool but also helped them succeed for many years afterwards.”

The full report is available here.