Children Learning and Parents Earning: Exploring the Average and Heterogeneous Effects of Head Start on Parental Earnings

Children Learning and Parents Earning: Exploring the Average and Heterogeneous Effects of Head Start on Parental Earnings

Published: Dec 14, 2021
Publisher: Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness (online ahead of print)

Christina M. Padilla

Key Findings
  • Families living on lower incomes in the United States often rely on programs like Head Start to provide their children with early care and education (ECE) opportunities prior to their entry into Kindergarten. Although most research focuses on the effects of Head Start for children, the program may also boost economic independence for parents by providing cost-free ECE and/or referring parents to community services.
  • To better understand these potential program benefits, this study sheds light on Head Start's impact on parental earnings. Findings from this work are especially important because merging two factors-child growth and development as well as parental economic security-through a single program like Head Start, could result in longer term impacts on overall health and well-being of the entire family.
  • The study does not find evidence that Head Start impacts parental earnings overall, but does uncover modest impacts for specific types of families and Head Start sites. Head Start does increase earnings by about $200 per month for up to three years after enrollment among parents whose children entered the program at age 3. Effects were also found for single parents and those who were already employed. Impacts on parental earnings were more likely to endure in Head Start sites that referred families to support services and that served families with greater initial economic advantage.

Head Start (HS) is our nation’s largest two-generation program that provides early education services to children and a variety of family support services that may promote economic wellbeing. Yet, no prior research has documented or described the effects of HS on parental earnings. We explore whether the program promotes parental earnings on average, investigate for whom these effects are greatest, evaluate the extent to which earnings impacts vary across HS sites, and identify which characteristics of centers associate with cross-site variation. We find that HS does not improve earnings overall. However, the program does increase parental earnings in a younger program cohort two and three years after random assignment. These effects are larger for single parents and those who are initially employed or in school. Earnings effects are typically homogenous across sites, although we do observe increasing variation over time that reaches statistical significance four years after random assignment. We are generally unable to explain this variation using measures of what HS sites do or provide apart from the economic wellbeing of the families they serve.

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