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The importance of the Head Start program cannot be overstated. This program has arguably been the most critical social and educational public investment in children, families, and communities the United States has ever undertaken. Head Start launched in 1965 as a comprehensive child development program. Over the last 60 years, it has provided opportunity and care to more than 38 million children and their families.

However, Congressional Republicans’ proposals to cut funding from our nation’s most successful early learning program by $750 million for the next fiscal year will deprive roughly 80,000 children of this critical program. The reality is that Head Start funding is a tiny slice of the federal budget but has a profound impact on strengthening the next generation. Republicans are playing politics with our kids’ futures. 

Research has shown the effectiveness and far-reaching positive impacts of Early Head Start and Head Start. These programs significantly support early childhood mental health, including social-emotional, language, and cognitive development. The value of infant and early mental health cannot be clearer; children who have positive and engaging interactions in their earliest years enjoy better physical and mental health over their lifetimes. They are also better able to experience, regulate, and manage their emotions, which are key skills for later school readiness. Children who attend Early Head Start and transition to Head Start are more prepared for kindergarten than children who do not. Head Start children are also more likely to graduate high school, attend college, and receive a post-secondary degree, license, or certification. 

Head Start enables parents to work and provide for their families. Meghan is a single mom in West Virginia who works full-time at a nonprofit but lives paycheck to paycheck. She relies on state-subsidized child care to stay in her job after struggling for years to get an available spot for her youngest child. Head Start has prepared her kids for kindergarten and helped her keep her job, proving to be an essential resource for her family. As Meghan says, "Without public investment, my kids would have missed out on the quality early learning opportunities they’ve each received through Head Start."

Head Start is an equitable public investment, serving a diverse group of children, families, and pregnant people. Of families served, 37% identified as Hispanic or Latino, and 27% identified as Black or African-American (non-Hispanic or Latino). Additionally, about 32% of children enrolled were dual-language learners, of which two-thirds were in families that primarily spoke Spanish at home.

The bottom line is that children who participate in Head Start programs receive innumerable benefits. These social and economic advantages appear immediately, last a lifetime, and even affect other generations. A slash to Head Start funding will have far-reaching consequences and deprive an entire generation of American children of the opportunity to succeed in school and participate fully in our economy. When children receive high-quality birth-to-five education, such as Early Head Start plus Head Start, the return on investment can be as high as 13% annually. 

Cuts to this critical program will lead to staff shortages, empty classrooms, and fewer children and families being served. We already know the challenges of struggling to afford child care, especially for working mothers. Additional cuts will force parents to leave jobs or their own schooling due to a lack of affordable, quality early learning care for their children. Our families and children need more public investment in early learning support, not less. Congress needs to prioritize the well-being of our nation’s youngest learners by abundantly funding Head Start to secure a healthy, thriving economy that works for all. We know how hard we fight for our kids. Our elected leaders need to fight for them too.

This post originally appeared on ProsperUS.

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