Head Start Is Established to Aid Poor Children Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Project Head Start was established to help ensure the rights of poor and otherwise disadvantaged preschool children and their families in the United States to adequate health care, nutrition, and education. It is the longest-running school readiness program in the United States.

Summary of Event

The United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959) entitles all children to adequate nutrition, accessible medical services, free education, and lives of freedom and dignity. Project Head Start was inaugurated by President Lyndon B. Johnson in Washington, D.C., on May 18, 1965, and as the first comprehensive federal effort at early childhood intervention stands as a significant contribution to the fulfillment of this declaration. Head Start is the product of historical, intellectual, political, and personal influences. Children;and poverty[poverty] Head Start Education;Head Start Poverty Health policy;United States [kw]Head Start Is Established to Aid Poor Children (May 18, 1965) [kw]Poor Children, Head Start Is Established to Aid (May 18, 1965) [kw]Children, Head Start Is Established to Aid Poor (May 18, 1965) Children;and poverty[poverty] Head Start Education;Head Start Poverty Health policy;United States [g]North America;May 18, 1965: Head Start Is Established to Aid Poor Children[08390] [g]United States;May 18, 1965: Head Start Is Established to Aid Poor Children[08390] [c]Education;May 18, 1965: Head Start Is Established to Aid Poor Children[08390] [c]Health and medicine;May 18, 1965: Head Start Is Established to Aid Poor Children[08390] [c]Organizations and institutions;May 18, 1965: Head Start Is Established to Aid Poor Children[08390] [c]Government and politics;May 18, 1965: Head Start Is Established to Aid Poor Children[08390] Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;economic policy Shriver, Sargent Harrington, Michael Bloom, Benjamin Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;economic policy Richmond, Julius

Many British immigrants arrived in North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries convinced of the importance of education to the political, socioeconomic, and spiritual success of their colonial experiment. By the early nineteenth century, education became a birthright of U.S. citizens. This conviction fueled the common school movement of the 1820’s and 1830’s. By the end of the century, educational reformers had turned their attention to the early childhood years, hoping that public orphanages, day-care centers, and kindergartens would safeguard the rights of disadvantaged children, especially those of urban immigrant parents.

The first White House Conference on Children, convened by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909, signaled the first major federal attempt at protecting children’s rights. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930’s further addressed early childhood concerns. The Works Progress Administration built nursery schools for low-income children, and the Lanham Act created day-care centers administered by local communities.

The 1950’s and early 1960’s provided the intellectual foundations for Head Start. Rejecting twentieth century conventional wisdom, J. McVicker Hunt Hunt, J. McVicker argued that environment, and not heredity, primarily governs human behavior. Oscar Lewis Lewis, Oscar , from his studies of the poor in Latin America, identified a global culture of poverty characterized by matriarchal authoritarian families, early maturation of children, and feelings of helplessness among individuals. Benjamin Bloom concluded that a child develops half of his or her intelligence by age four and 80 percent by age eight. Early education therefore offers a potential escape from poverty.

Journalists joined these scholars in heightening public awareness of the children of the poor. Michael Harrington’s The Other America Other America, The (Harrington) (1962) defined poverty as deprivation of minimal levels of health, housing, food, and education. He contended that as many as one in four Americans fit this definition, and that the other three in four largely refused to acknowledge the existence of poverty in an increasingly affluent society. Dwight Macdonald’s Macdonald, Dwight article “The Invisible Poor” "Invisible Poor, The" (Macdonald)[Invisible Poor, The] (The New Yorker, January 19, 1963) critiqued Harrington’s and others’ contributions to the emerging literature on poverty. Macdonald, while finding fault with specific pieces of evidence advanced in these works, nevertheless concurred with their general conclusion that poverty was a dire national problem in need of a prompt national solution. He even forwarded his own antipoverty proposal: a minimum income for all, guaranteed by the federal government.

The 1960’s also offered the political opportunity for Head Start. President John F. Kennedy addressed poverty in the 1960 West Virginia presidential primary. He coined the phrase “war on poverty” in an August campaign speech and presided over the civil rights revolution, which would mobilize many poor people of all races. After reading Harrington’s and Macdonald’s indictments of federal inaction toward the poor, he ordered Walter W. Heller Heller, Walter W. , chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, to launch a national antipoverty effort. On November 23, 1963, the day after Kennedy’s assassination, Heller presented the martyred president’s antipoverty plan to his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson.

Johnson’s own background added a personal influence to the creation of Head Start. After working his way through Southwest Texas State Teachers College, Johnson had commenced his teaching career in Cotulla, Texas, at a school for disadvantaged Mexican children. On January 8, 1964, Johnson resurrected the term “war on poverty” in his state of the union address State of the union address;1964 . On January 20, he sent Heller’s report to Congress. On February 1, Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, agreed to become Johnson’s special assistant in the War on Poverty War on Poverty and to head a task force to draft legislation.

The Economic Opportunity Act Economic Opportunity Act (1964) of August 30, 1964, created the Office of Economic Opportunity Office of Economic Opportunity, U.S. (OEO), a federal antipoverty agency whose programs would be directed by Shriver but locally administered by the poor themselves. The OEO soon incurred criticism for this latter “community action” feature, which, by enlisting the poor, often bypassed local administrators. The agency, while furthering the rights of the disadvantaged through work-study, job training, and volunteer programs, overlooked the rights of the children of the disadvantaged. About 17 percent of the nation’s poor, or nearly six million, were under six years old. Shriver moved to address both of these concerns. He believed that because children were the most tragic victims and the most potentially sympathetic symbols of poverty, a program to ensure their basic human rights would provide a political justification for community action and a moral underpinning for the War on Poverty.

Building on his experience with his wife Eunice Kennedy Kennedy, Eunice in early intervention programs for the mentally disabled, Shriver appointed a committee of child-development specialists led by Robert Cooke Cooke, Robert , pediatrician-in-chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital, to draft an extensive federal program of early childhood intervention for the socioeconomically deprived. On May 18, 1965, President Johnson presented the result of the committee’s deliberations. Project Head Start (OEO staffer Judah Drob Drob, Judah suggested the name) would be a summer program for disadvantaged children who were to enter kindergarten or the first grade in the fall of 1965. It would provide an intellectual, medical, nutritional, and psychological head start for children in their lifelong quest for the full enjoyment of their fundamental human rights. It would encourage considerable involvement by parents and community leaders. The OEO would finance up to 90 percent of the cost of the programs; the local community would cover the rest.

The first director of the program would be Julius Richmond, dean of the medical faculty at the State University Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, New York. Although Head Start would offer no respite from a summer of civil rights demonstrations and race riots, it would enroll almost 560,000 children at 13,400 centers in 2,500 communities and would provide paid summer employment for about 100,000 people. It engendered such hope that Johnson announced on August 31 that it would become a year-round program for more than 350,000 disadvantaged preschool children three years old and older. A summer session with follow-through programs such as special classes, home visits, and field trips would be available for those children excluded from the year-round classes.


Preschool children living in poverty are too often the victims of inadequate health services, incomplete immunizations, and uncorrected or unattended physical disabilities. They lack communication skills; they have little opportunity to enjoy reading, art, or music; and they distrust strangers. They reach school age with low self-esteem and little motivation to learn. Project Head Start has made great progress in attacking these symptoms of early childhood poverty.

Head Start grew to enroll nearly 500,000 children in 24,000 classrooms by 1991. A decade later, enrollments had grown to more than 900,000 students in more than 48,000 classrooms, while the 2004 budget for the program reached an all-time high of nearly $6.8 billion. Studies show that every dollar spent on Head Start saves six dollars in health care, welfare payments, and crime control, justifying the U.S. government’s steady increases in financial support for the program over the years. Head Start has won wide acclaim as a significant step in the quest for human rights in the United States. Children;and poverty[poverty] Head Start Education;Head Start Poverty Health policy;United States

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bornet, Vaughn Davis. “The Great Society in Law and Practice.” In The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1983. The major secondary source on the Johnson presidency. Chapter 10 offers a critical and largely negative assessment of the Great Society, Johnson’s domestic policy of which Head Start was a part. Index, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brauer, Carl. “Kennedy, Johnson, and the War on Poverty.” Journal of American History 69 (June, 1982): 98-119. Thoughtful revisionist essay that argues that the War on Poverty was less the product of sociology and politics than the result of Walter W. Heller’s economic analysis, Kennedy’s and Johnson’s personal convictions, and the unexpected opportunity provided by Kennedy’s assassination. References.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Patterson, James T. America’s Struggle Against Poverty in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. A comprehensive study of the evolution of policies and attitudes toward poverty in the twentieth century United States. Argues that while public poverty policies have changed, public attitudes toward the poor have largely remained the same. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Payne, James S., Ruth A. Payne, Cecil D. Mercer, and Roxana D. Davidson. Head Start: A Tragicomedy with Epilogue. New York: Behavioral Publications, 1973. A dated, critical, and largely negative assessment of the Head Start program that explores problems of personnel, transportation, and parental involvement and offers suggestions for improvement. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Congress. Senate. Subcommittee on Education and Early Childhood Development. Early Education and Care: What Is the Federal Government’s Role? Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2005. Report of a 2005 hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, which examined the federal government’s role in improving the effectiveness and coordination of childhood education programs, including Head Start.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Administration for Children and Families. Head Start Impact Study, 2000-2006. Report of a study mandated by Congress to analyze the impact and effectiveness of the Head Start program. Available at http://www .acf.hhs.gov/programs/opre/. Click on “21 Projects” under Head Start Research to access the report.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Washington, Valora, and Ura Jean Oyemade. Project Head Start: Past, Present, and Future Trends in the Context of Family Needs. New York: Garland, 1987. Provocative assessment of Head Start programs and evaluations, and a call to action for Head Start to address changing family trends (feminization of poverty, teen parenting, working mothers, quest for economic self-sufficiency) among the poor. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zigler, Edward, and Jeannette Valentine, eds. Project Head Start: A Legacy of the War of Poverty. New York: Free Press, 1979. Comprehensive history and analysis of the Head Start program’s first decade. Includes philosophies, curricula, models, and evaluative criteria of the program. References.

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Categories: History