Economic Conditions of Head Start Families: Connections with Social Supports and Child and Family Well-Being

Publication Date: July 16, 2021
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  • Published: 2021

Introduction

Research Questions

  1. How often do parents report material hardship and financial strain? Are parents more likely to report material hardships and financial strains if they are living in poverty, or if their household does not have two working parents?
  2. What kinds of social supports can parents turn to? Do parents who live in poverty report different social supports than those who do not live in poverty?
  3. Do parents with more social supports report fewer material hardships and financial strains?
  4. Do more social supports buffer the link between poverty and material hardship and financial strain?
  5. Do financial strain and material hardship predict child and family well-being, after accounting for poverty?
  6. Are social supports associated with child and family well-being? For parents with more social supports, is there a weaker link between material hardship and financial strain and child and family well-being?

This research brief uses nationally representative data from the Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES 2019) to understand the prevalence of material hardships, financial strain, and social supports among parents with children in Head Start. It also examines whether these characteristics differ by key background characteristics. In this brief, we also discuss whether aspects of economic conditions are linked to child and family well-being and whether social supports help weaken such associations.

Purpose

The purpose of this brief is to explore how families experience and perceive available resources and whether the measurement of constructs such as material hardship, financial strain, and social support provide better predictors of family and child well-being than measuring household income alone.

Key Findings and Highlights

  • Over half (54 percent) of parents with children in Head Start report at least one material hardship (inability to pay for basic material needs), and almost as many (40 percent) report at least one financial strain (feeling like they cannot afford daily life or needs).
  • Parents in households above 130 percent of the federal poverty threshold are less likely to report at least one material hardship or financial strain than households near poverty or in poverty. Parents in households with two parents who work full-time are less likely to report at least one material hardship or financial strain than other parents (see figure).
  • Most parents report having access to social supports, but parents in households above the federal poverty threshold more often report the ability to obtain a loan from friends or family in an emergency. Parents with more social supports also report fewer material hardships and financial strains.
  • Parents with financial strains or material hardships have more depressive symptoms than parents without financial strains or material hardships.
  • Material hardships and financial strains are unrelated to families’ engagement in learning activities with children.
  • Children whose parents report material hardships are more likely to have lower executive function scores (self-regulation), fewer social skills (cooperative behavior), poorer receptive vocabulary (number of words they understand), and poorer physical health. Material hardships and financial strains are not related to children’s approaches to learning or problem behaviors.
  • Social support is associated with fewer parent depressive symptoms and better child physical health. Social support weakens the association between material hardship and financial strain and parent depressive symptoms and between material hardship and child physical health and receptive vocabulary.

Head Start parents in households with two full-time working parents are less likely to report experiencing at least one financial strain than other parents

Source: Fall 2019 FACES Parent Survey.
Note: Statistics are weighted to represent all children enrolled in Head Start in Fall 2019. All estimates from the parent-reported instruments are at the child level and are to be interpreted as the percentage of children. For simplicity, we use the term parents instead of children’s parents, when describing findings.

Methods

FACES provides information at the national level about Head Start programs, centers, and classrooms, and the children and families they serve. We selected a sample of Head Start programs from the 2017—2018 Head Start Program Information Report, with two centers per program and two classrooms per center. Within each classroom, we randomly selected 12 children for the study. In total, 59 programs, 115 centers, 221 classrooms, and 2,260 children participated in the study in fall 2019. The sample used for this brief included 1,684 children who were enrolled in Head Start in fall 2019.

The analyses proceeded in stages aligned with one or more research questions. First, to examine prevalence and any differences in who experiences financial strain, material hardship, and social support, we estimated means, standard deviations, and percentages to describe families’ financial strain, material hardship, and social support. We conducted significance tests to determine whether financial strain and material hardship differ by household poverty level and parent employment status, and whether social supports differ by numbers of financial strain and material hardship.

Next, to explore associations among economic conditions, social support, and family and child well-being, we conducted a stepwise series of regression analyses with material hardships and financial strains as the outcome variables. We included the following variables in these analyses: child race/ethnicity, child age, child sex, Head Start exposure, parent employment status, maternal education, primary language spoken at home, household poverty level, and an interaction term between the social support and poverty variables. Finally, we conducted a stepwise series of regression analyses for each child and family well-being outcome. We included the control and predictor variables noted above in each of these analyses, as well as material hardship, financial strain, an interaction term between financial strain and social support, and an interaction term between material hardship and social support.

Citation

Doran, E., N. Aikens, L. Malone, J. Harrington, and J. Cannon. “Financial Experiences of Head Start Families: Connections with Social Supports and Child and Family Well-Being”. OPRE Report # 2021-84. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, 2021.

Glossary

FACES:
Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey