Senate Urges HHS to include SNAP, WIC in Head Start eligibility definition

Washington, D.C. — Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and six of her colleagues, Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Bob Casey (D-PA), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), Bernie Sanders (D-VT), and Tina Smith (D-MN) sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) urging the Secretary to expand Head Start’s public assistance eligibility definition to include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). This action, which is allowable under current law, would ensure that additional at-risk children and families can access Head Start and Early Head Start.

“It is clear that the eligibility criteria Head Start uses have become increasingly detached from the needs of children and families across the nation. Adding SNAP and WIC to the categorical eligibility list is a simple and swift action we can take to mitigate the increasing barriers that children and families face,” said National Head Start Association Executive Director Yasmina Vinci. “On behalf of the Head Start community, we enthusiastically thank Sen. Hassan, Baldwin, Casey, Kaine, Head Start alumnus Luján, Sanders, and Smith, for their work to ensure all children and families have access to high quality early learning services.”

Currently, families are eligible for Head Start programs when they meet 100% of the Department federal poverty level (FPL) and 35% of slots can be designated for 130% of the FPL. Current FPL is equivalent to $27,750 for a family of four. Additionally, Section 645 [42 U.S.C. 9840] of the Head Start Act provides for eligibility when families, in the absence of child care services, would be eligible to receive public assistance. In practice, Head Start programs have used Temporary Assistance for Needy Families child-only payments and Supplemental Security Income as indicators of ‘public assistance,’ but the term has not been formally defined in statute or regulation, leaving out critical public assistance programs used by some of our country’s most high-need families.

In 2021, NHSA brought together a group of 45 Head Start practitioners from 32 states to discuss how Head Start and Early Head Start eligibility requirements should evolve. Head Start directors Kimberly Shinn-Brown (Ozarks Area Community Action Corporation in Springfield, MO) and Keesha Woods (Los Angeles County Office of Education Head Start, Los Angeles, CA) co-chaired the working group, whose recommendations include moving to Area Median Income to determine income eligibility, which would take into account geographic disparities in the cost-of-living, in addition to adding categorical eligibility for those qualified to participate in SNAP and WIC or in kinship care.

“Head Start programs all across the country operate with long waitlists of families who are slightly above the income threshold to qualify but still face hurdles and hardships to access child care,” said Woods. “There’s no doubt that expanding eligibility and streamlining the enrollment process will support more families during a challenging time. Thank you, Senator Hassan, for this necessary step in the effort to increase resources for families that have already been identified as needing public support.”

The Hassan letter is the second Sec. Beccera has received from Congress on the topic of eligibility. In December 2021, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA-40), along with Reps. Bass (D-CA-37), Chu (D-CA-27), Correa (D-CA-46), Lee (D-CA-13), Lieu (D-CA-33), Sánchez (D-CA-38), Sherman (D-CA-30), and Torres (D-CA-35), sent a letter urging the secretary to temporarily accept SNAP eligibility as proof of Head Start eligibility.

“Adding SNAP and WIC will also underscore the critical links between nutrition support and early childhood education and help connect pregnant WIC recipients to Early Head Start services at a critical and vulnerable juncture in their lives,” added Shinn-Brown.

About NHSA

The National Head Start Association is committed to the belief that every child, regardless of circumstances at birth, has the ability to succeed in school and in life. The opportunities offered by Head Start lead to healthier, empowered children and families, and stronger, more vibrant communities. NHSA is the voice for more than 1 million children, 270,000 staff and 1,600 Head Start grant recipients in the United States. ••• Media Contact: Emily Wagner, Director of Communications, media@nhsa.org