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Mel Gravely

Families that are Categorically Eligible to Enroll in Head Start

head start categorical eligibilityA month ago, Head Start released a memo stating that families receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits are now categorically eligible for Head Start. What that means is that if families can provide documentation of their eligibility for SNAP benefits, they are automatically eligible to be enrolled in Head Start. They do not need to provide any additional income verification.

Technically, what Head Start says it’s doing here is simply recategorizing SNAP as a “public assistance” program. Sec. 645 of the Head Start Act says that “children shall be eligible for participation in programs if their families are eligible or, in the absence of child care, would potentially be eligible for public assistance.” However, the Act is not explicit in what programs qualify as public assistance. For many years, the Office of Head Start only included two federally-funded public assistance programs under that umbrella: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Now that umbrella has been expanded to include SNAP.

This is good news. While there is some overlap between TANF or SSI recipients and SNAP recipients, there’s not always. This allows Head Start agencies to make sure that they’re continuing to serve the neediest families in their communities. It also helps SNAP families feel more comfortable during the enrollment process and lessen the feeling that they have to jump through hoops to prove eligibility.

“The primary effect of this [memo] is to eliminate barriers to families who are already eligible for, and in many cases already enrolled in, Head Start services by providing a streamlined way for such families to demonstrate eligibility,” the memo reads.

For more information on this change, OHS has answered some frequently asked questions on ECKLC.

The release of this memo got me thinking about other instances when children are categorically eligible for Head Start services. Our last blog allowed us to get back to basics regarding nutrition. Given this recent news about SNAP, I thought another back to basics blog about eligibility would fit right in with that theme.

Children Who Are Categorically Eligible for Head Start

Families Receiving Public Assistance
We talked about this at length above, but wanted to include it again here so that our list is complete for those who just want the bullet points. Families that receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and/or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program are eligible for Head Start.

Families Experiencing Homelessness
In 2018, Head Start made a nationwide push to encourage agencies to enroll children whose families who were in temporary housing. As one of the most vulnerable populations in any community, homeless families are categorically eligible for Head Start, and grantees are even allowed an additional 30 days after the start of the program year to recruit those families.

Children in Foster Care
This is explicitly laid out on the Performance Standards. Children in foster care are eligible for Head Start. No other verification required.

Children in Kinship Care
This is related to foster care, but is not explicitly mentioned in the Performance Standards. That’s why OHS released a memo in 2019 clarifying the rules after they had received a lot of questions about eligibility of children in kinship care.

“Formal or informal kinship care,” the memo states, “broadly refers to children who are living with relatives or caregivers other than their parents. In most cases, these children are eligible for Head Start services.”

A note about children with disabilities
All Head Start agencies are required to recruit and enroll children with disabilities into their program so that those children fill 10% of their funded enrollment. However, that doesn’t mean that children with disabilities are categorically eligible for Head Start. For example, families with disabled children whose incomes are above thresholds would not be automatically eligible. However, Head Start still encourages grantees to reach out to those families. Each Head Start program is authorized to enroll up to 10% of its funded enrollment with children from families who would benefit from Head Start but who are not eligible under income standards (see Head Start Act Sec. 645(a)(1)(B)(iii)(I)).

For more information on eligibility, see Section 1302.12 of the Head Start Performance Standards.

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  1. Ericka Goss says:

    This information is helpful.

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