The Head Start Program, under the Department of Health and Human Services, provides child development services to mostly low-income families and their children. Up to 10% of Head Start-enrolled families can be over-income, with an income 130% above the poverty line.
Of course, things don’t always work out as they are supposed to and the GAO has discovered problems with about half of the centers it examined through the investigation, just a small sample of the 1,600 nonprofit centers running 3,000 Head Start programs.
GAO received allegations of fraud and abuse involving two Head Start nonprofit grantees in the Midwest and Texas. Allegations include manipulating recorded income to make over-income applicants appear under-income, encouraging families to report that they were homeless when they were not, enrolling more than 10 percent of over-income children, and counting children as enrolled in more than one center at a time. GAO confirmed that one grantee operated several centers with more than 10 percent over-income students, and the other grantee manipulated enrollment data to over-report the number of children enrolled. GAO is still investigating the other allegations reported. Realizing that these fraud schemes could be perpetrated at other Head Start programs, GAO attempted to register fictitious children as part of 15 undercover test scenarios at centers in six states and the District of Columbia. In 8 instances staff at these centers fraudulently misrepresented information, including disregarding part of the families’ income to register over-income children into under-income slots. The undercover tests revealed that 7 Head Start employees lied about applicants’ employment status or misrepresented their earnings.
GAO managing director for special investigations Gregory Kutz told a House education committee last month that “the system is vulnerable to fraud.” No kidding.
While unable to determine the motivation of Head Start employees to commit fraud by adjusting income levels on applications, Kutz theorized that management of nonprofit agencies receiving Head Start funds pressured staff to fudge, fiddle with, or straight up fake figures on applications in order to keep federal funds coming in.
Head Start has served over 25 million children since 1965 and there are currently over 1 million children enrolled in Head Start programs.