Head Start’s Ability to Improve Housing Access

Last week, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Head Start Association (NHSA) announced a new partnership that aims to help alleviate intergenerational poverty. Through this new initiative, Head Start centers across the country will offer families voter registration, health care enrollment, and fair housing advocacy.

Early education programs like Head Start help children develop their language and literacy skills, early math and science concepts, and social-emotional skills. These are all crucial in preparing young children for later success in school and in life. But Head Start provides more than just education-based services; local agencies also offer health and developmental screenings for low-income children, nutritious meals, mental health services, and connections to outside health care sources.

Head Start not only provides a safe and structured space for children to learn and grow while parents are at work, but being a part of the Head Start community can be empowering for parents in and of itself. The program offers structured opportunities for family engagement to encourage positive parent-child relationships. Some centers also provide supports like English classes and job training, and most programs organize advocacy opportunities within the community. These opportunities can include community and peer connections that are particularly important for low-income families who rely on these networks of social support.

As is often the case, though, these services vary in their extent and effectiveness across communities and agencies. Head Start’s focus on both the child and the parent makes it one of the oldest and potentially most effective dual-generation programs in the US. However, the program can still go further to improve families’ well-being and address intergenerational poverty.

Families often remain in poverty for generations because many social programs only target specific issues, such as education, job training, housing, or food benefits. These programs are certainly valuable sources of support for many families, but agencies often fail to coordinate with one another, leaving families with gaps in their services. The new NAACP and NHSA initiative has the potential to bring greater continuity of services to impoverished families by coordinating several social services in Head Start locations. Moreover, the NAACP will broaden its advocacy reach through the almost one million children from low-income families who participate in Head Start.

The initiative’s combination of voter registration drives, healthcare enrollment opportunities, and fair housing information will streamline access to important social services for low-income families. Of specific importance is the focus on fair housing advocacy. There are a number of reasons for homelessness, including mental illness and substance abuse, but a less often discussed factor is the unethical renting practices that many families face. Despite the Fair Housing Act purporting to protect against housing discrimination, families still face race, class, and sex discrimination when seeking housing. Fair housing advocacy could be an important resource for Head Start families that they might not otherwise have access to. As NAACP President and CEO Cornell William Brooks said about the new partnership with NHSA, it “is a natural extension of their commitment to educating and empowering families and the communities they serve.”

The ability to live in a permanent, stable residence is the most significant asset a family can own, but unfortunately this is also the resource that can be most difficult for impoverished families to achieve. On any single night in 2015, HUD reports that 64,197 families with children were homeless across the US, totalling 206,296 people without a place to safely live. Both homelessness and the stress of living in poverty have deleterious effects on children often resulting in developmental delays and behavioral problems.

It is unlikely that social policies will raise families out of poverty if the family lacks stable housing while receiving these other social benefits. Education programs, including Head Start’s focus on language skills, math and science concepts, and emotional development, are particularly erroneous without a permanent home base upon which children can learn and develop.

The NAACP and NHSA initiative offers a hopeful bridge between permanent shelter and broader social programs. Fair housing advocacy can help families achieve a stable home, which is a crucial ingredient in the recipe for self-sufficiency and family success. It is only logical that the nation’s largest dual-generation program targeting poverty would include housing advocacy as part of its services."

Author:

Olivia Barrow is an intern with New America's Family-Centered Social Policy Program. She is working on a Master of Public Administration at the George Washington University.