Opinion

How Mississippi’s administration of a federal child care program hurts black, low-income families

The Hechinger Report and The Clarion-Ledger have have been running a joint investigation of Mississippi’s child care practices. The following piece is a response to the seventh part of the investigation.

The Mississippi State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a report last month that shows serious harmful impacts on Mississippi’s low-income working families of color in the way the state operates the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) program.

The report notes the severely limited reach of the program that leaves thousands of eligible children unserved; rules in the program that obstruct parents access to services; and the failure to use available funds that jeopardizes the financial stability of providers attempting to serve parents who can ill afford expensive child care fees.

Testimony from advocates and providers revealed widespread evidence from those who utilize federal block-grant program funds that the child care subsidy system as operated in Mississippi results in inequitable outcomes for those who qualify for, benefit most from, and rely upon the program: low-income Black single moms and the providers that serve them – a population that is overwhelmingly Black and female.

Related: The race problem in Mississippi daycares

The Child Care and Development Block Grant is awarded to states by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to help low-income working families afford child care. As a block grant, the program yields most rule-making to the state. In Mississippi, the state’s Department of Human Services (DHS) is charged with the operation of the program, which means the Governor has much control because the Governor appoints the Executive Director and DHS has no Board of Directors. The Governor and DHS can and should adopt the recommendations in the Civil Rights report.

The program helps low-income working parents afford the high cost of child care. The program gives eligible working parents vouchers that pay a portion of the child care fee based upon a sliding scale set by DHS.

The report makes several important observations. The program is severely underfunded and serves only 15% of our state’s eligible children (124,426 are eligible and only 18,300 are served); and that DHS directs money away from services to children to such a great extent that we have shrunk the number of children served by 56% since 2006.

Related: Child care crisis: State’s weak oversight puts children in harm’s way in Mississippi

In addition, DHS fails to use all the money available to serve more eligible children whose parents need, but get left out of, this critical work support program. For example, DHS reported to HHS we had $11.8 million left unspent in our TANF grant in FFY 2013, money that could have expanded child care for parents leaving welfare for work.

Furthermore, DHS has made rules that prevent parents who need child care in order to work from getting it – rules like requiring single moms to file for child support in order to qualifythat has disparate impact on women; rules like confusing reporting requirements for those on the program that reduce the 365 eligibility period to only 13 to 260 days of service per year.

The report notes, as well, that DHS operates a quality rating system so expensive it prices out poor communities of color; and operates with rater bias against poor, black-owned child care centers.

And finally, DHS operates this program in a climate of distrust among providers, and out of the belief that those who are reliant on this program perpetrate fraud rather than do all they can against great odds, many of which are created by DHS, to provide critical work support services for struggling families.

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The failure to serve more eligible children, the failure to use available money, the obstructive rules that thwart parents, and the failure to make sure centers have the money they need to operate and improve – all disproportionately harm low income communities of color.

Workforce leaders note that more Mississippians would work if they had affordable child care, and cite the lack of child care as the most significant barrier to workforce participation. The block grant program makes the child care that low-income families need affordable so parents can work. Yet despite all the benefits of this child care program, Mississippi continues to fail our state’s low-income working families by failing to make this program work.

The report recommends actions for the federal HHS Office of Child Care that we echo to the Mississippi DHS. This is particularly timely because DHS is re-writing child care policies in this child care program right now. We call upon DHS to incorporate these recommendations in the new policies they are currently drafting:

Related: For Mississippi parents, child care costs lead to tough choices

Eliminate the child support requirement that has a disparate harmful impact on women; make sure parents keep child care all 365 days per year; make sure centers in low-income black communities have the money they need to meet expensive standards in the quality rating system; eliminate rater bias in the quality rating system; Create written policies in the quality rating system to make procedures transparent; and create a process to grieve unfair or biased ratings.

Operate with transparency; and make accurate data available to the public. Mississippi working families need affordable child care. This program helps.

Mississippi child care centers need financial stability to serve children and families. This program helps.

Mississippi leaders want more Mississippians to go to work. This program helps.

We call upon DHS and the governor to make this program work for Mississippi’s working families.

We call upon DHS and Governor Bryantto implement the recommendations included in this report and to connect more meaningfully with all stakeholders in this issue.

In doing so, we can successfully begin to narrow rather than exacerbate harmful disparities in Mississippi’s administration of this federal program.

Susan Glisson is the chair of the Mississippi State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

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