CITY HALL — The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District lost 20 federally-funded pre-school spots for low-income 3- and 4-year-olds because not enough disadvantaged youth qualified under the federal poverty guidelines, county officials said.

The decision comes just over a year after SMMUSD applied to take over 127 spots under the Head Start program after a former provider, Delta Sigma Theta Pre-School, stopped.

“Since Delta had been operating in the same territory, it was assumed that there would be enough kids to enroll when we expanded,” said Judy Abdo, development services director for the district. “It turns out there was not.”

In large part, that’s a result of the extremely-low level federal poverty guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Human Services which define “poor” as $15,130 per year for a couple and $23,050 per year for a family of four.

The same measure is applied to California residents, who have a notoriously high cost of living, as anywhere else in the country.

“It’s tough,” Abdo said. “You think the eligibility is the same in Mississippi and North Dakota as it is here, and the cost of living is enormously different.”

The Westside in particular is a challenge to the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which administers the Head Start program in the region.

Although LACOE recognizes that pockets of working class families, families getting assistance and the working poor live in areas like Santa Monica, it doesn’t exist to a large degree, said Keesha Woods, director of the Head Start Pre-School Division at LACOE.

Even if families are struggling to make ends meet, Head Start can’t serve them unless they qualify under federal guidelines with very few exceptions, Woods said.

“We’ve had this challenge in terms of demographics in the Santa Monica area for many years,” Woods said. “Each year, it becomes progressively more difficult to serve there.”

Families can qualify for the Head Start program despite their income if they qualify for other kinds of federal assistance like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, or if they’re homeless.

The county can push the eligibility to 130 percent of the federal poverty line, but only if every person at the normal level is served first, and that is not the case, Woods said.

The divide between the California cost of living and the measure adopted by the federal government is a long-standing issue.

According to a report by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research in May, the economic downturn and high cost of living in California has left many families in the gap between making it and qualifying for federal aid.

The center’s survey of the California Legislature demonstrated that although lawmakers must often use federal poverty numbers when they evaluate programs for low-income individuals, they would prefer to use locally-derived numbers.

That makes sense, according to the report.

“For example, while the annual (federal poverty level) amount is $15,130 for a couple in 2012, the actual cost of living for a two-person household in the state can be two to three times that amount,” the report states.

That’s according to the Elder Economic Security Standard Index, a newer measure of poverty that takes into account how much it costs retired, older adults to cover their basic needs.

Other research suggests that one out of five adults between the ages of 18 and 64 are also “undercounted” by the federal standards.

Even if the federal standards changed overnight, the Head Start program could not continue in at least one of its current locations in Santa Monica.

LACOE is shutting down the center at Los Amigos Pre-School after discovering major structural damage at the 35 to 40-year-old relocatable that would take up to $200,000 to repair.

The county still needs permission from the federal government to demolish the structure, which currently sits on land owned by Calvary Baptist Church.

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