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Spotlight on Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Families

By Andrew Keefe, Contract Policy Analyst and Truman-Albright Fellow at the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation in the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Farmworkers are a critically important part of the U.S. economy and the engine of a $435 billion industry. They are disproportionately Hispanic. While 15 percent of all U.S. workers are Hispanic, almost half of hired farmworkers are Hispanic. Of just over one million U.S. farmworkers, roughly one-third are agricultural service workers, which include those considered migrant and seasonal.

What’s the difference between Migrant and Seasonal Workers?

Though both are considered agricultural service workers, migrant and seasonal workers have different employment experiences. Migrant workers travel a distance to work and live in temporary housing for the purposes of that employment. Seasonal workers typically have long-term homes near their (seasonal) work locations.

Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Programs

Migrant and Seasonal Head Start (MSHS) programs are a crucial support for the children of agricultural workers, many of whom move frequently throughout the year and/or have variable employment. MSHS programs serve farmworker families who have at least one child under age six, earn more than 50 percent of their income from agricultural work, and earn less than the federal poverty level.

As the Office of Head Start recently finalized proposed new performance standards for all Head Start programs, including MSHS, we take the opportunity to describe the families eligible for MSHS programs (who make less than the federal poverty level), as well as agricultural families with higher incomes (up to 200 percent of the poverty level). To do this, we draw on the second Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Supplement to the National Agricultural Workers’ Survey, which summarizes data from the 2007-2011 National Agricultural Workers Survey. The report highlights the complexity of these families’ households and the often substantial English language and literacy barriers they face.

Complex Households

Findings from the report suggest that migrant and seasonal households—both MSHS-eligible households and those with higher incomes—are crowded and complex.  MSHS-eligible households may be even more crowded and more complex.

Large families

Across all the income groups studied, roughly two-thirds of migrant and seasonal families have two or more children under the age of 18. MSHS-eligible families may have more children overall (approximately 2.4) than other families with higher incomes (approximately 2.0), as well as more children under the age of six.

Additionally, many migrant and seasonal families—particularly the MSHS-eligible families—live in households with other extended relatives. Data show that 21 percent of MSHS-eligible households have six or more relatives living with them compared with roughly one in 10 for families from the higher-income groups.

Additional Housemates

Respondents also reported sharing their homes with individuals who do not share expenses of the immediate family. MSHS-eligible households have an average of 3.2 of these extra residents, while higher-income migrant and seasonal households have an average of 2.5. These individuals may be extended family members, such as nieces or nephews, or family friends.

Large Households, Small Dwellings

Migrant and seasonal workers tend to have large households and small dwellings—that is, they often live in crowded housing. The homes of all respondents, regardless of income, are approximately the same size, though MSHS-eligible respondents have an average of 5.5 people sleeping in their homes and higher-income respondents average 4.9 people.

Language and Literacy

The proportion of families for whom Spanish is their dominant language is similar across all migrant and seasonal workers examined.  Virtually all of the households in each income group report speaking Spanish ‘well’ (95 to 96 percent).  The majority of migrant and seasonal families also read Spanish (70-80 percent), and nearly all migrant and seasonal respondents reported being able to read at least ‘a little’ Spanish.

Many migrant and seasonal families—and particularly the MSHS-eligible families—tend to not speak or read English very well. Approximately 46 percent of MSHS-eligible respondents speak no English at all (as opposed to speaking ‘a little’, ‘somewhat’, or ‘well’), compared with just over a quarter of other migrant and seasonal families. In terms of English literacy, 59 percent of MSHS-eligible parents reported not being able to read any English, compared with roughly 40 percent of other migrant and seasonal families.

Leveraging Data to Improve Services for MSHS Families

While it is no substitute for having conversations with families in the programs, the information in the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Supplement to the National Agricultural Workers’ Survey may provide useful information for programs serving these communities. Collectively, the nuanced picture it offers of migrant and seasonal farmworkers’ household complexity and language and literacy abilities can add much to policymakers’ and practitioners’ considerations of these families’ needs, risks, and resources.

For example, given that MSHS-eligible families are likely to have at least one child in the elementary-school age range (who may be served by Migrant Education Programs), establishing a plan for supporting families’ engagement in the older children’s education may be one approach to strengthening parents’ overall skills for educational engagement. Additionally, perhaps the complexities of transporting children in two distinct educational systems pose an obstacle to MSHS program enrollment for parents–programs may consider this when establishing MSHS program transportation options.

This information also highlights language barriers that may hinder parents’ ability to submit necessary paperwork or understand eligibility requirements.  This information may support efforts to connect families with translator and/or English-language services and employ staff—to the extent possible—who speak Spanish. These approaches may strengthen parents’ overall skills for educational engagement with their children.

While the body of large-scale research on Head Start services has grown substantially in recent years, few nationally-representative studies have examined MSHS programs and the predominantly Hispanic farmworker families whom they serve.

The Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Supplement to the National Agricultural Workers’ Survey is an important resource for understanding and effectively supporting this unique population.


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