CHN: Congress Finishes Head Start and Leaves Some Unfinished Business

Congress adjourned on December 19 having finally passed Head Start reauthorization which expired in 2003.  It, however, failed to advert cuts in the Child Support Enforcement Program and to address needed improvements to the unemployment insurance program.

Head Start

On December 12, President Bush signed the Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act, H.R. 1429, after it passed both the House and Senate with overwhelming bi-partisan support.  Earlier the President proposed to dismantle the program by instituting state-controlled block grants.  Advocates applaud the improvements in the bill.

The Head Start program was first authorized in 1965 to serve economically disadvantaged pre-school-aged children. Currently over 900,000 children are enrolled in Head Start programs around the country.  The bill sets a goal that all Head Start teachers will have at least an associate’s degree and half will have a bachelor’s degree by 2013.  It expands eligibility from 100 percent of poverty to families at 130 percent of the poverty level.  It eliminates a controversial National Reporting System for testing 4-year-olds supported by the Bush administration, and it disallows hiring of Head Start staff based on an individual’s religion.

The bill authorizes funding for Head Start of $7.35 billion in FY ’08, up from $6.9 billion in FY ’07, but still insufficient to restore cuts made since 2002. While advocates applaud the improvements in the bill, they know that funding levels will be critical to strengthening the program.  The FY ’08 omnibus that passed Congress this week again provides only $6.9 billion for the Head Start program, which means it will not even keep up with inflation in FY ’08.

Child Support Enforcement

In 2006, more than 17 million children and their families received $24 billion in child support through the help of the Child Support Enforcement Program.  This effective federal program collects over four dollars in child support for every dollar it spends.  However, the Deficit Reduction Act of 2006 cut the program by $6.7 billion over 10 years.  States will begin to feel the affects of the cut beginning in January.  Some counties report that they will have to lay off up to one-third of their staff leaving uncollected billions of dollars in child support.

Despite strong bi-partisan support, Congress failed this year to pass stand-alone legislation that has been introduced in the House and Senate or to attach language to other bills that would reverse the cuts made in 2006.  Advocates will be working in 2008 to restore the funds lost in the program.  Their efforts will be bolstered by a strong letter of support for the program from The National Governor’s Association.

Unemployment Insurance

Earlier this year the House and Senate introduced The Unemployment Insurance Modernization Act, H.R. 2233/S. 1871.  The Unemployment Insurance (UI) Program provides vital temporary income support when workers are laid off or must leave their jobs through no fault of their own.  The bills would reform eligibility criteria and the benefit structure providing financial incentives to states to update their programs.

In most states only full-time workers are eligible for UI.  The bills include incentives for states to extend UI to part-time workers.  States would also be encouraged to offer benefits to workers who leave their job for family reasons, such as fleeing domestic violence, needing to care for a sick or disabled relative, or moving with a spouse who relocates to take a new job.  Currently to be eligible to receive UI benefits, a claimant must have a specified amount of earnings during a specific set of months prior to their job being terminated.  Depending on the state, between three to six months of the most recent earnings may be disregarded when determining eligibility and benefit level.  The bills would encourage states to use more recent earnings to determine eligibility and benefits.

Advocates will continue to press for passage of this legislation when Congress convenes in January.

Early Childhood Education
Education and Youth Policy
Fact of the Week
Income Support
Labor and Employment
The War on Poverty: 50 years later
unemployment insurance