‘We can’t out-pay Walmart:’ How low pay is decimating Head Start 


July 1, 2022

Low pay and stressful work conditions are causing Head Start providers across the country to lose key staff, shut down programs, and turn students from low-income families away, a situation that is setting off alarm bells among early childhood education advocates. 

Last month, at its annual convention in Baltimore, the National Head Start Association (NHSA) surveyed its members about conditions in the Head Start workforce in the midst of a pandemic and runaway inflation. 

The group published its findings in a five-page report that included not just facts and figures but also personal anecdotes from respondents that demonstrate the degree to which not only Head Start but the entire early child education and child care infrastructure in this country are on the edge of a precipice. 

“The Head Start and Early Head Start workforce is in crisis,” NHSA said in the survey. “Chronic low compensation, challenging job conditions and better opportunities with employers who pay more are combining to create a vortex of spiraling need that demands immediate action.” 

The survey’s four key findings: 

  • 57 percent of about 900 respondents said low pay is the number one reason for staff turnover. 
  • 85 percent said turnover is higher this year than in previous years. 
  • 90 percent said they have had to close classrooms permanently or temporarily. 
  • On average, almost one-third of all staff positions are unfilled. 

Across the country, stories are emerging about the hits Head Start providers have taken. 

In the state of Washington, enrollment in Head Start plummeted by 29 percent between 2019, before the pandemic began, and 2021, according to the Seattle Times. The drop was all the way from 17,242 students to 12,255 students.  

In West Virginia, where home state Senator Joe Manchin has blocked spending increases on early childhood education and other programs aimed at helping children, the starting salary for Head Start workers is equal to the state’s minimum wage — $8.75 an hour. 

“We can’t hire anybody. Nobody’s even applying for jobs,” Lori Milam, Executive Director of the West Virginia Head Start Association told the education publication K12DIVE. “We can’t out-pay Walmart and the gas station down the street and even the fast food restaurant.” 

The publication reported that Head Start providers in West Virginia have lost staff to Burger King, Target, Arby’s, and Sheetz, a gas station/convenience store chain. Other staff members are going to work for K-12 school systems, which even in West Virginia pay a lot more than Head Start. This is a problem affecting Head Start providers nationwide, as K-12 programs have their own staff shortages to contend with and have increased salaries to attract new talent. 

Joel Ryan, Executive Director of the Washington State Association of Head Start, told K12DIVE that many Head Start workers are living in poverty, and he said the closures in his state are disproportionately affecting students of color, who are more likely to participate in Head Start than in other early childhood programs. And he said the pandemic has made things worse. 

“It’s a little bit like Hurricane Katrina,” he said. “It also highlighted the vast inequalities, how terrible we’re paying people, the lack of resources, the underinvestment in young children, from both state and federal government and local governments.” 

So what is the solution? NHSA says one of the most important and timely steps Congress can take is simply to provide additional funding – quickly. It has recommended that funds for Head Start be included in the reconciliation bill under negotiation in the Senate. 

“The Head Start and Early Head Start workforce – a corps of dedicated professionals committed to serving the most vulnerable children and families – has been pushed to a breaking point,” the NHSA report states. “Congress must act now to improve baseline compensation for the Head Start workforce by at least $2.5 billion per year to address these systemic and urgent shortcomings.” 

child care
Early Childhood Education
Head Start