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How the potential government shutdown could impact Head Start centers nationwide

Update (October 1, 2023): Congress has signed the bipartisan deal to keep the government funded for 45 days. The bill will fund the government through November 17, 2023.


Update (September 26, 2023): The Senate passed a measure to keep the government open through mid-November. It remains unclear what the House will do.


As the deadline for another potential government shutdown approaches, some people across the country fear the disruption it could bring to critical federal programs and services, including Head Start centers, which service as a lifeline for countless children and families across the United States.

As of September 26, 2023, Congress has yet to agree on a series of appropriations bills that would determine the budget for the federal government. Unless Congress is able to make a deal this week, the federal government will shut down on October 1.

The most recent federal shutdowns happened in 2018. Together, they lasted 36 days in total.

Any potential disruption caused by a government shutdown raises concerns about the welfare of low-income children and families. During a shutdown, federal agencies cease their regular operations and non-essential personnel are sent home. On Friday, September 22, 2023, the White House confirmed that if the government shutdown occurs, Head Start would be one of the first programs to be impacted. The Department of Health and Human Services could not award grants and Head Start providers could lose access to federal funding. This could mean up to 10,000 children could lose access to Head Start during that time. Further, Office of Head Start staff would be on furlough and not able to communicate with Community Action Agencies that provide Head Start services to families.

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Head Start is a federal program designed to promote school readiness for young children and low-income families. It provides comprehensive early childhood education, health, nutrition, and family support services to ensure children have the opportunity to succeed in school and life. Head Start centers serve as a cornerstone in the development of our country’s future generations.

Head Start centers rely heavily on federal funding to operate effectively. The funding covers staff salaries, educational resources, and essential services that help families in need. The centers serve more than a million children nationwide.

According to the National Head Start Association, there are ten Head Start programs in the United States that would be impacted first, since they are October grant recipients. Several other programs receive grants in November and December, and could be impacted later.

The National Head Start Association responded to the potential shutdown with the following statement:

“No matter the length, a federal shutdown has the potential to unleash a wave of uncertainty and hardship on the children and their families who depend on Early Head Start and Head Start as well as further decimate the workforce that cares for them.
The looming threat of a shutdown pushes programs to the edge, forcing families who rely on Head Start for their children’s learning and care of the children so they can work and/or go to school into a difficult position. It also aggravates the condition of our workforce, leaving them to grapple with ever-diminishing support systems and strained resources. If a shutdown happens on October 1, there are 10 programs serving more than 10,000 children and families across the nation who will be immediately impacted. And if the shutdown stretches from days to weeks or even months, the likelihood of closed classrooms increases drastically—all the while Congress has the ability to pass a simple, straightforward, bipartisan continuing resolution to enable further debae without harm to children and families.
To those who are holding us back from a resolution, we plead: putting children and families at risk doesn’t help anything. This entirely avoidable situation is yet another blow to families and providers who are already at a breaking point. We urge Congress to come together on an agreement as quickly as possible—to ensure Head Start classrooms stay open, children learn, parents work, and the Head Start workforce is afforded the support they need in fiscal year 2024.”

In the face of this uncertainty, there is some reassuring news: Step Forward’s Head Start sites are poised to remain unaffected.

“Fortunately, our fiscal year schedule places us in a favorable position during this potential government shutdown,” Dr. Thea Wilson, Step Forward’s Vice President of Children and Families, explained. “With the end of 2023’s fiscal year falling in January and the commencement of a new fiscal year not until February 2024, we can ensure that our essential services for children and families will continue uninterrupted.”

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Step Forward acknowledged that its programs and services will remain secure, but that many of the agency’s clients may not be as fortunate. The prospect of furloughs and financial strain remains very real.

“We are deeply concerned about the potential hardships that may befall our community members and clients,” Douglass Bennett, Step Forward’s Vice President of External Affairs, said. “Millions of workers may miss out on a paycheck. Vital programs like the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which provides crucial nutritional support to low-income mothers and children, could feel the impact of the shutdown within a matter of days. Additionally, food assistance and food security programs could see delays.”

No one knows how long a potential government shutdown could last. Everything depends on how soon the House and Senate can pass a new appropriations plan and how quick President Joe Biden can sign it.

“Step Forward is committed to supporting our clients and their families during this challenging time and we remain vigilant in our efforts to connect them with the resources they need to navigate any uncertainties,” Bennett stressed.

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