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This article is the fourth in a series investigating the child care system in Mississippi.

JACKSON, Miss.— Annita Bonner sat down at the desk in her bedroom at 5:30 on a Wednesday evening in January. She was exhausted. After seven hours as a substitute teacher at a south Jackson middle school and a brief trip to the grocery store, she was about to start her second job as a call center representative for a large national company.

As the calls started coming in, Bonner tried to keep an eye on her 9-month-old son, Austin, a cheerful baby with curly hair and big brown eyes, as he sat in a colorful plastic bouncer alone, down a short hallway in the living room. Today she’d had about 30 minutes to play with him between jobs, singing him the ABC’s with a big smile and encouraging him to clap his hands and practice crawling.

Bonner, who already struggles to pay for child care during the day, can’t afford it in the evening. If her 15-year-old son has basketball practice or a neighbor isn’t available to watch her baby, the alternative, which is keeping Austin in the bedroom with her while she works, puts her job at risk. There’s always a chance he could make noise and a caller could complain.

“They don’t want to hear baby noise in the background,” Bonner said as she logged into the call center system on her laptop. “I could lose my job.” Although she said she knows he’s safe in his bouncer, it’s far from an ideal situation. “I’m trying to fit a baby into an adult schedule.” Bonner said. “That’s not fair to him.”

Bonner needs this second-shift job, which pays $8.25 an hour, in part to pay for the child care center Austin goes to during the day. She applied for help paying her child care costs from a federally funded, state-run program, but without luck. Nearly a year later, Bonner is still on a waiting list with more than 7,060 other applicants. Paul Nelson, public information officer with the Mississippi Department of Human Services said the department is waiting until more funds are available to sort through those applications to determine eligibility.

The federal government’s Office of Child Care at the Administration for Children and Families gives money to states each year through its Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) program, which, for many states, is one of the main sources of public funding for child care. Funds from the CCDBG are given to privately run child care centers, regulated by states, to pay part of the tuition for children who are receiving child care assistance, and to child care centers to improve quality or train staff members.

In 2015, the CCDBG allocated about $5.2 billion to states to defray some of the costs of daycare for parents; each state sets its own rates for child care tuition reimbursement.

Some experts say the federal CCDBG program fails to live up to its potential to provide meaningful assistance to parents and providers. In most states, only a fraction of those eligible receive help and waiting lists are long. And vouchers given to child care centers aren’t enough to cover both the cost of caring for kids and the supplies and training such centers need in order to improve quality, center directors and advocates say. Federal allocations for the program have remained relatively static for years, which means struggling parents around the country find themselves in situations like Bonner’s.

child care costs
Annita Bonner picks up her son Austin at daycare. Bonner pays about $400 a month for child care and has been unable to get help from state programs. Credit: Jackie Mader

“It’s just a mess. We just don’t prioritize it,” said Helen Blank, director of child care and early learning for the Washington-based National Women’s Law Center. “We don’t understand what a role it plays in helping women go to work and helping children succeed.”

In 2013, parents of about 18,300 children in Mississippi received assistance for child care tuition, the lowest number since 1998, according to the Washington-based Center for Law and Social Policy. The number is less than half what it was in 2006, when 39,100 children received assistance. Of 42 states that reduced spending on vouchers between 2006 and 2013, Mississippi was fifth highest in the number of cuts made to the program, and the reduction in the number of children served.

Since 2008, CCDBG funding for Mississippi’s child care certificate program—its form of child care assistance— and child care quality improvement efforts, has fluctuated slightly between about $55 million and $57 million, except for 2009, when the state received about $30 million in additional funds through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Slight increases in funding “may not keep up with inflation or increased costs associated with providing child care services,” said Patrick Fisher, public affairs specialist at the communications office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A small rise in funding can still “lead to a decrease in the number of children served,” he said

Last September, 20,293 children were helped through child care assistance in Mississippi, according to Nelson, at the Department of Human Services. That number fluctuated each month between October 2014 and September 2015 — sometimes by more than 1,000 kids — depending on parent eligibility, referrals from welfare programs and the number of foster children receiving assistance, Nelson said.

When parents can’t afford child care on their own, they’re left with few options and some tough decisions, said Carol Burnett, executive director of the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative. They may seek out a neighbor or a family member whose services are cheaper than a local daycare. “Or they have an older sibling at home who they make in charge of caring for a younger sibling, or they just don’t go to work and they stay home themselves. And there are problems with all of those,” Burnett said.

Nationwide, about 11 million children under the age of 5 are enrolled in child care, according to the nonprofit group Child Care Aware. Thirty-five percent of these children are enrolled in a child care center, preschool, or a federally funded Head Start center, and 50 percent receive care in small family child care homes or are looked after by a relative.

child care costs
Annita Bonner’s son Austin plays in the living room of Bonner’s home. Bonner often must leave Austin in a bouncer while she works in her bedroom, taking calls for a call center so she can earn money to pay for daycare. Credit: Jackie Mader

(The Administration for Children and Families also funds the federal Head Start program, a $7.8 billion child care and early education program that serves only low-income children and must meet federal health, safety, and education regulations. Child care subsidies include help for parents who don’t qualify for Head Start but are still low-income.)

Bonner said she looked into several Head Start centers but was told there were waiting lists. Currently, there are waiting lists at each of the four Early Head Start centers in Hinds County that serve infants, according to the Hinds County Human Resource Agency.

Those centers are far from Bonner’s home and the school where she works, which would add to her gas costs and make it hard to pick up Austin if he gets sick.

The cost of child care varies by state: In 2015 center-based infant care cost more than $17,000 annually in Massachusetts and less than $5,000 in Mississippi; costs in a family child care home ranged from about $10,600 in Massachusetts to roughly $3,900 in Mississippi. (Family child care homes in Mississippi serve five or fewer unrelated children in a residence and are not regulated or inspected by the state).

Mississippi’s child care rates are the lowest in the country for a reason — it’s what people can afford. The state’s median income is the nation’s lowest and its unemployment rate, as of December 2015, was among the nation’s highest. The cost of infant care accounts for 26 percent of a single parent’s income, according to Child Care Aware. For a married couple, child care in Mississippi takes up 14 percent of the household income.

In the South, child care is the second highest expense — after housing — for a family with two children and, depending on the state, may cost more than a year of college tuition, according to Child Care Aware.

Related: Child Care Crisis: State’s weak oversight puts children in harm’s way in Mississippi

Congress reauthorized CCDBG in 2014; the federal Administration for Children and Families is in the process of revising the requirements states must meet to receive funds, many of which are more rigorous than before. Although the new law authorizes more funding for the program, the guaranteed funding amount remained level. Congress has the discretion to determine the amount of additional funds each year.

States have several years before they must meet all of the law’s new requirements, but advocates worry that if funding does not increase, the law’s new requirements for regulating and improving centers could pull scarce federal money away from helping families afford care. “[States] are having to do all this great stuff with no additional money,” Burnett said. “We’re worried it will shrink services for kids.”

Bonner says most people would be surprised to know she has to rely on public assistance. She has a bachelor’s degree from Jackson State University, which she earned while raising her oldest son alone and working three jobs, and will receive her master’s degree in public administration this May from Jackson’s Belhaven University. Bonner is on the board of the parent teacher association at the school her older son attends and also serves on the board of Mississippi’s statewide parent teacher association.

Despite her credentials, Bonner has found it hard to find a stable job, let alone a career. She’s applied to dozens of positions, including several at state agencies and temp jobs. “It’s painful to go through the process of becoming educated, and not have the finances,” said Bonner, who grew up in a family of eight children and was one of three to finish college. “I thought going to college, that was going to be my way out.”

She left an abusive husband after her first son was born. Her youngest son’s father is no longer involved in their lives. Bonner says she’s gone to court seeking child support, but so far has been unsuccessful.

Bonner pays roughly $400 for Austin’s daycare and $640 in rent each month, leaving less than $200 of her monthly income to pay for car insurance, gas, and other necessities, like clothes for her sons. She receives help paying for food and formula each month through the federal Women Infants and Children program, but still comes up short.

“Something is not going to be met,” Bonner said. “It’s always a choice you’re trying to make. If I pay childcare, I’m not paying rent. If I pay rent that means I’m not paying childcare. If I don’t pay childcare, Austin has nowhere to go. If Austin has nowhere to go, that means I can’t work.”

In May 2015, two months after Bonner applied for child care assistance, she received a letter from the state’s Department of Human Services that read, “At this time the program has used all available funding.” In October 2015, Bonner e-mailed the Mississippi Department of Human Services to find out the status of her child care assistance application, and was told again that no funds were available.

Bonner pays $95 a week for Austin to attend the same licensed daycare center her 15-year-old attended when he was young. She looked over a list of lower-cost daycare centers the DHS sent her, but she worries about sending her baby somewhere new.

“I don’t even know the quality of care of these [other] facilities,” Bonner said. “I want a quality center.”

A recent review of public records by The Clarion Ledger and The Hechinger Report found that Mississippi’s child care system is weakly regulated by the Department of Health, which fails to hold centers to minimum standards or help them improve.

Although the state health department’s Division of Child Care Licensure is working to put child care center inspection results online, as yet Mississippi parents have no quick, easy way to evaluate daycare options. To investigate other centers in her area, Bonner would have to make a public records request for reports.

Related: Who should fix problems with Mississippi’s early childhood system?

Child care is an important industry, not just for the impact it can have on children and families. The child care sector contributes $41.5 billion to the national economy each year, according to a report by the Committee for Economic Development (CED), a Virginia-based nonpartisan public policy organization. Mark Snead, an economist who worked on the report, said better access to child care could have a positive effect on the workforce. Mississippi has one of the lowest workforce participation rates in the nation, with less than 60 percent of the working-age population either working or looking for work. Several legislators have proposed bills or attended national conferences to try to increase the number of people working and improve conditions for working families.

Without “greater use of paid child care,” trying to raise education levels and labor rates “would be futile,” Snead said.

Parents who do get child care assistance say the impact is invaluable.

Delachaise Sadler, who works at a Jackson-area bank, filled out a child care assistance application in 2014 when she moved to Jackson from Yazoo City. She said it took four months to get approved for assistance so that her youngest child, who is 13 years old, could attend an after-school program at the local Salvation Army. “It made a big difference,” Sadler said. “It eased up on my bills… every little bit helps.”

Sadler pays $90 a month for the program, a much more manageable amount than the full tuition of $175 she says she would pay without state help. (The state reimburses child care centers directly.) Her son gets help with homework and can take art and music classes. During the summer, he attends the Salvation Army’s program all day.

Advocates say that although the child care certificates are helpful when parents get them, there are still problems. The average certificate awarded to parents is $2,600 per year, according to the Department of Human Service’s Nelson, which falls short of the state’s average yearly child care cost of $4,822 for infants. That means centers that serve mostly low-income parents — who can’t always afford to make up the difference — can’t pay workers well, send them to training or keep their art supplies and bookshelves stocked, experts say.

Related: High turnover and low pay for employees may undermine state’s child care system

“When you have such low [certificate] rates, if you’re in the Mississippi Delta or a low-income community and you serve poor kids, it’s very hard to be high quality,” said Helen Blank.

Bonner said without child care assistance, it’s easy to fall behind on tuition payments. At one point in January, Bonner owed $300 to her son’s daycare. The center’s employees told her that they would work with her and knew she was trying. “It means a lot to me,” she said. “They are running a business. They have employees that they have to pay. It hurts we can’t pay them all the time.”

Some states have tried to improve the situation for both child care centers and parents by supplementing federal funds with more state funding, so that improvements in daycare quality do not come at the expense of helping parents. Pennsylvania, for example, increased the number of children who receive tuition assistance by 10,000 since 2006 (despite a decrease of roughly 2,800 between 2012 and 2013). The state decreased the number of children on its child care assistance wait list from more than 2,600 to 1,800 between early 2014 and early 2015.

The state was able to whittle its wait list by using a combination of federal and state funds, according to Rachel Kostelac, deputy press secretary at Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services. In the governor’s 2015-16 budget, $17.8 million was allotted specifically to move Pennsylvania families off the wait list. In 2014, the state transferred more than $153 million from its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds to its CCDBG-funded child care assistance and improvement programs.

In Mississippi, improving the quality of centers and giving assistance to more parents would mean redistributing state funds and prioritizing child care in the state government, advocates and experts say. (At the end of fiscal year 2014, Mississippi had $21.2 million in unspent TANF funds that some advocates say should be transferred to the state’s child care certificate program to enable it to serve more children.)

“The legislature would have to say … we think this is an issue that gets our families to work and gets our children a strong start, we are going to make it a top priority,” said Helen Blank. “And we’re going to allocate a significant increase [of funds] and we’re going to continue to do that until we’re paying providers an adequate rate and providing assistance to the families that need it.”

Annita Bonner is anxious to find a higher-paying career — preferably in government — that would allow her to pay all her bills, spend more time with her baby, and perhaps start a college fund for her older son.

Meanwhile, she calculates that with child care assistance, she wouldn’t need welfare. “I don’t want anybody to think I just want these services because I feel entitled,” Bonner said. “I don’t want a handout, I want to be able to become self-sufficient. Give me the opportunity to have a career. That’s the only way I can make it.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. In the coming weeks, this series will look at unlicensed daycare centers and at solutions to the child care problem for Mississippi and other states.

Reproduction of this story is not permitted.

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