Economy

Mississippi Refuses To Use Money That Would Give Poor Families Child Care

CREDIT: AP Photo/Mike Derer

Christi Foster grew up in Georgia. While the state doesn’t spend a lot on its safety net for the poor, she says that enrolling in benefits wasn’t too complicated. “You go and apply for something and you find out that day or within a week’s time,” she said.

But since the single mother of three children moved to Mississippi, things have been a whole lot different. “Everything down here is so hard,” she said. “Daycare assistance, with Mississippi, it’s hard to get in… it’s always a waiting list.”

After she and her husband got divorced and she was caring for her first two children, she worked a job that paid about $10 an hour. “There was no way I could afford for my children to go to daycare,” she said, given that it cost about $200 a week for both of them. But she had to wait to get any financial assistance, and in the meantime she had to do something. She found a family member who would watch her children for cheaper. “They didn’t get the educational things I felt they could get in daycare,” she said.

Foster eventually got enrolled in assistance and her payments shrunk to a $25 monthly copay. That allowed her to go to college and get her Master’s Degree, graduating in 2013. “If I didn’t have the daycare assistance… I wouldn’t have graduated,” she said.

But when she had her third child, she had to start from scratch all over again. It took about a year, she said, to get re-enrolled in assistance, and in the meantime she had to shell out hundreds a week for her infant’s care plus after school programs for her older children. She used her entire tax refund to afford his care.

“When you don’t get assistance and you don’t make much money, you’re basically working to pay daycare,” she said.

Eventually she got into the program a second time. It made a dramatic difference. “You don’t have to worry about how you’re going to pay for things,” she said. “Your money can go to other things, necessities like the light bill, rent, kids’ needs.”

Getting there, however, is like running the gauntlet. “They don’t want to pay you,” she said of the state agency running the childcare assistance program. “You got to basically draw blood to get help.”

A Civil Rights Crisis

The situation facing Foster and other low-income parents of color in Mississippi trying to get help paying for childcare was the subject of a recently released report from the Mississippi Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights sent to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Given that 92 percent of the people benefiting from child care assistance via the state’s administration of the federal Child Care and Development Fund block grant are black, compared to 42 percent of recipients nationally, the report asked the question: is the state putting up barriers that disproportionately impact black people?

The answer appears to be yes. “The MDHS [Mississippi Department of Human Services, which administers the program] has imposed a number of discretionary requirements which may unnecessarily restrict the families in greatest need from accessing quality, affordable child care—primarily in low-income communities of color,” the report notes.

Officials also found that the department diverted money away from core services and didn’t use other funds it could have, thus denying assistance to children primarily in low-income communities of color. And it found that the quality rating system the state deploys is so expensive, without any offer of extra funding, that it leaves it out of reach “for the providers most in need of support, particularly those in low-income African American communities.”

This severe underfunding means the number of needy children the state is reaching has dropped dramatically — by 53 percent between 2006 and 2013. Only about 15 percent of eligible children actually got funding in a given month in 2013.

It’s not that the state doesn’t have the money. The report notes that Mississippi had more than $7.8 million left unspent in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) money, which can be put toward child care, yet spent exactly none of it on that purpose. One estimate found that if it had deployed that money, it could have served nearly 3,000 more children.

“Mississippi always finds a way to intervene and thwart the intent of a federal program if the program is designed to help poor people,” said Carol Burnett, executive director of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative. “Our political leadership has a hostile stance toward the federal government and a hostile stance toward public assistance.”

That’s how it gets to a place where it leaves TANF funds lying around unspent. “The state would rather see the money not spent than see it go and achieve the goals of the federal program that the money is allocated for,” Burnett argued.

Scapegoating Parents

Instead, Mississippi used the fund to make sure needy parents weren’t somehow trying to defraud the system. The state paid a contractor $31.5 million to implement a parent fingerprint scanning system in 2012 to avoid supposed fraud — money that was taken directly from assistance that could have gone to families.

And yet when asked by a state policy institute how much fraud it had uncovered in its system, MDHS admitted that simple errors — mostly committed by local agencies themselves — were more of a problem than fraud itself.

“This thing had a different purpose than fraud protection,” Barnett asserted. “It’s really to erode the program.”

The fingerprinting initiative was ended in 2013, but the contract wasn’t rescinded. If it had been, it would have freed up enough funding to serve nearly 8,000 children. Burnett’s organization has filed a public records request to find out how much of that money actually got spent and how much could be funneled back into the program.

The state doesn’t just starve the program of money. It also discourages people from even trying to get help by implementing a number of voluntary policies. While the federal funds the state uses have shrunk by 28 percent since 2010, its services have plummeted by 46 percent. As one testimony in the report from Hannah Matthews, director of child care and early education at the research group CLASP, notes, there is a “likelihood that declining participation is not solely the result of funding shortfalls, but also reflects state policy choices.”

One of those choices was the introduction of a requirement that single parents take legal action against the other parent to get child support payments before they can receive child care assistance. The report points out that an estimated 44 percent of children in poverty are raised by a single parent, versus 10 percent of children with married parents. That may mean that raising this extra barrier harms “the families most in need of support.” On top of that, because the majority of single parents are women, it “necessarily results in a disparate impact on the basis of sex.”

The state also claims that once a parent is approved for benefits, she should get them for an entire year. But things are often more complicated than that. Parents enrolled in full-time educational programs must have their eligibility redetermined every semester or quarter, forcing parents to stay on top of more paperwork and regularly putting their slot at risk of being taken away.

Additionally, some parents referred by other programs are deemed eligible because they are put in priority categories, but if any of the circumstances that lands them in that category changes, they can be terminated. All of that means that the promise of 365 days of continuous help generally only adds up to between 13 and 260 days.

Shutting Down Daycare Centers

It turns out that’s not just a challenge for parents. The hurdles that the state adds to its assistance program also filter down to the providers themselves. Many of the ones that serve low-income, African-American families struggle to stay in business.

Dorothy Lewis had to close the daycare center she opened in 1984 to serve poor parents who couldn’t afford care in 2011 after the challenges became too much. “After the hurdles, I just couldn’t keep going,” she said.

The funding was completely unreliable. “You really never could make up a budget, because you never knew what [kids] you’re going to have, they sanctioned the parents for all different kinds of reasons,” she explained. “If they sanctioned the parent, then that meant you lost the child, which meant you lost the funding.”

Sometimes she wouldn’t even know right away that the parent lost funding because the parent wouldn’t tell her, or she’d decide to keep a kid enrolled rather than send him away. “If I had a dollar for every child I’ve kept without being paid, mostly by the state, I could have operated probably another year and a half,” she estimated.

That’s what kept her going for so long. “That was my mission, to provide service to the ones who need it most,” she said. “One of the reasons I kept doing it as long as I did was because I knew that they’re in a safe place.”

She’s not sure where the children who she served ended up. “Most of the children didn’t go anyplace,” she said. “They stayed with uncles, aunts, grandmas, wherever they could stay.” They were likely well cared for. But they didn’t get any of the enrichment she had previously provided. “Parents do what they can do, what they have to do to try to survive,” she noted.

The ones who stay in business are hard pressed to get any extra funding from the state to help them keep their doors open. Carolyn Todd opened her center with her sisters in 1994, back when the current assistance program was just getting set up, as the only place in their town besides Head Start. “There were a lot of children who were in need of child care, and we were basically trying to make sure that every child had an opportunity,” she said.

Things were easier back then. “There was no such thing as waiting lists,” she said. “As time goes on, more and more families are in need, but the funding I don’t think ever changed.”

One of the biggest challenges is that even when parents enroll in assistance and hold onto it, the state is stingy in how much it will pay the actual provider. “The state does not pay the market rate,” Todd said. “For instance, we may charge $95 for an infant, but the state will agree to pay $87.”

The civil rights report notes that reimbursement rates in Mississippi’s program are about 60 percent lower than what providers charge normally. Todd said she hasn’t seen an increase in reimbursement rates for more than ten years. And it’s also up to the provider to collect the share that the state won’t cover from low-income parents.

One way for a provider to get higher reimbursement rates is to get higher ratings in the state’s quality ratings system. But moving from one star to two stars costs an average of about $11,500 per classroom. “[M]any providers who depend on these funds cannot afford to make the necessary improvements to achieve higher ratings,” the civil rights report says. While some requirements don’t cost much — such as holding regular parent/teacher conferences or more parent communication — others, such as changes to the physical classrooms, are quite costly.

Given how hard it is to pull that off, only about a third of licensed child care programs in the state are enrolled in the quality rating system. Those who miss out on the extra funding that’s promised in the system are more likely to be in low-income, black communities. “When you talk about pricing out low-income centers, what it means is you’re pricing out centers of color,” Burnett noted.

Todd is one of the providers who decided not to participate. “As a center, we felt like we were high-quality, it was something at the forefront when we opened the business,” she said. “But their expectations of quality is not realistic to what we can afford today… It’s their version of quality without any input from us.”

All told, she struggles to stay in business. “We stay here because of the need, the need is great,” she said. “The system and the way things work, that makes it really difficult.”

A National Patchwork Of Inaccessible Care

While Mississippi parents might be a particularly difficult bind to get child care, the problem certainly crosses state lines. “States have enormous discretion in setting policies,” CLASP’s Matthews pointed out. Many of the discretionary policies — quality ratings systems that are too costly to comply with, hurdles in parents’ way who try to enroll — are in place in other states. “It varies tremendously. We have 50 different state programs.”

And the issue of race is likely entwined in these other state programs as well. CLASP recently released a report finding that nationally, the CCDBG block grant serves about 21 percent of eligible black children, the highest share of all racial groups.

“To my knowledge, this is the first civil rights investigation into child care subsidies,” Matthews said. “Recognizing access to quality child care as a civil rights issue is fundamentally important… Nationally, this report provides the start for a conversation about who’s accessing childcare assistance in states and what the impact of discretionary state policies really is.”

Burnett also felt that the report represents a milestone and a recognition of racial disparities that her organization had long been trying to make. But the state so far hasn’t done much in reaction. “So far they’ve acted as if the civil rights report never came out,” she said. “The ball’s in their court right now.”

Changes may not come soon enough to help Christi Foster. She says that her assistance is supposed to last through September, yet she just got a notice that it’s been put up for re-determination. “They’re making us send check stubs now, and it’s crazy,” she said. She noted that school will let out soon, and summer programs are even more expensive. “It’s a waiting game, you don’t know if they’re going to cut you off.”

“It’s like they don’t want you to get it,” she added. “They try to find ways to keep you from getting it.”