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With the lowest median income of all fifty states, and the highest percentage of people living in poverty, Mississippi’s poor could use a little help. But for many, school closures that will last until at least mid-April in an effort to combat the coronavirus might seem to add to their pile of hardships, instead of offering reassurance.
The poor in Mississippi receive a lower share of federal cash benefits than in almost any state in the nation. Only six out of every 100 Mississippi families with children in poverty have access to cash through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, compared to a national average of 22 per 100, according to an analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released this month.
Worse, while the state limited cash benefits to the poor to roughly $7 million, or 5 percent, of the funds it received from TANF, it spent more $50 million since 2015 on a nonprofit that’s now under investigation for allegedly embezzling millions of government dollars. Advocates say the spending that’s now in question would have been better directed to struggling families desperately trying to get by.
Getting by will be that much harder for Mississippi families in poverty as schools close.
Low-income families are less likely to have access to the technology that can help their kids keep up with their studies via online learning programs. Compounding the so-called homework gap, children who aren’t getting enough to eat and who are dealing with other physical and emotional stresses related to poverty already faced steeper obstacles in school.
Related: How Mississippi’s districts are separated into haves and have-nots
As schools shut down, middle-class families are facing tough decisions about whether they should take leave, pay more for child care, or try to juggle their jobs and childcare themselves by working from home. Mississippi parents working minimum wage jobs may not have flexible leave policies or work-from-home options at all.
Many will lose their jobs, or already have. Nationally, 18 percent of working adults who responded to a NPR/Marist poll last week said someone in their household had been let go or had their hours reduced because of the pandemic. Many restaurants in Mississippi have shifted to pick-up orders only and some have shutdown indefinitely. Employees who keep the state’s $2.2 billion gaming industry in operation will also take a hit. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves issued an executive order closing the state’s casinos this week.
Oleta Fitzgerald, director of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Southern Regional Office, said school closures to contain the coronavirus outbreak will further expose the vulnerability of families with the least resources. Fitzgerald is hopeful that Congress might work out a proposal to provide cash aid to families that have been impacted the hardest.
“Most all families when parents when they get a little extra money, they put it into something for their children,” she said. “They buy clothing; they increase the quality of the childcare center.”
Still, it’s a scary moment for children in a state that was just starting to see major gains in student performance.
But school districts are not shrugging their shoulders at the real hardship that the closures will bring to many of their students. They are trying to fill the gap.
When the Jackson Public School District decided to extend its Spring Break by two weeks, the question for school officials wasn’t if the district would continue providing free meals for students, but how quickly they could mobilize. Executive Director of Child Nutrition Marc Rowe and the JPS Partners in Education Director Thea Faulkner began a flurry of phone calls to community groups to see who could help.
Related: Tears, confusion and financial woes as colleges abruptly end semesters and send students home
In Jackson, more than 67 percent of students live in a family qualifying for a social support program such as TANF. Thirteen percent of students in the district have been identified as homeless.
A few days after the extended break announcement, volunteers hauled more than 100 boxes, each packed with enough food to feed a family of four for a week, to the parking lot of Pecan Park Elementary School. The school is also one of 12 campuses where the district is offering daily free grab-and-go breakfast and lunch meals for children in the capital city on weekdays.
It’s a relief effort that districts and nonprofits across the nation’s poorest state have rolled out to aid families that might struggle to afford the cost of additional meals during school closures.
“It’s important our role in the community does not change when students are in school,” Rowe said.
“These are still our children,” Faulkner added.
Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Mississippi Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Monday with trends and top stories about education in Mississippi. Subscribe today!
This story about Mississippi school closings was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.
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