A supervisor called Darlene Smith at her work-from-home office one afternoon this summer, wondering why she’d taken her 30-minute lunch break 30 minutes early.
She was changing her 6-month-old’s diaper and tending to her rambunctious 6-year-old.
“I thought I was about to lose my job,” Smith said.
Smith had been receiving child care assistance through the Mississippi Department of Human Services’ Child Care Payment Program for the last four years so she could hold a job.
In June, just a few months after her maternity leave ended, the agency put Smith through “redetermination” — essentially making her reapply for the program. It found her ineligible and abruptly ended her benefits.
Smith is one of thousands of Mississippi parents, according to a survey of child care centers, who have lost their child care certificate in recent months during the COVID-19 pandemic, even while the state hoards over half-a-billion in unspent federal child care dollars.
Typically, parents must prove they worked at least 25 hours every week in order to remain eligible for the assistance.
At her job as a customer service representative for an insurance company, where she answers calls and handles claims, Smith was working between 20 and 24 hours.
After Smith lost the voucher, she had to pull her daughter out of daycare, where the little girl was receiving uninterrupted attention. When they’re at home, Serenity, the 6-year-old, likes to rile up baby Martez, causing a squealing commotion.
“I don’t have time to see what’s going on ‘cause I’m on the phone,” Smith said. “You gotta answer all your calls. You’ll get in trouble if you don’t answer your calls.”
Mississippi had the option to suspend the certificate program’s regular rules, including redetermination, during the ongoing health and economic crisis.
But the state chose not to, straining both low-income households and the child care centers whose budgets rely on the government subsidy.
“We’ve lost a lot of children because of redetermination,” said Patricia Young, owner of School of Champions Development & Learning Academy in Itta Bena. “Parents have not had that opportunity or chance to get back to work, to even look for a job. That’s really been hard.”
Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative, which conducted the recent survey, estimates that between 3,600 and 4,100 parents lost their assistance during the recent redetermination process, which could translate to up to 7,300 children now lacking childcare.
As Mississippi’s welfare department has kicked parents off the child care voucher, Young said she’s watched her center’s revenue decrease and her blood pressure skyrocket.
At the same time, she’s taken on more responsibility because kids who used to attend her center part-time are there all day conducting virtual learning as the public schools navigate COVID-19.
“They’re opening and closing and opening and closing because of the virus,” Young said.
In Itta Bena, nearly half the residents live in poverty and the median household income is just over $17,000, so Young’s center relies on the government subsidy to stay in business.
“The (parents) I have are working at factories or food plants or at McDonalds. They cannot afford to pay for child care,” Young said. “That’s the purpose that I was thinking the certificate program was for, to help those parents who cannot otherwise afford child care.”
Mississippi has some of the least expensive child care costs in the nation, meaning providers are paid less here, leading to lower pay for child care workers and limited resources for early childhood development inside the centers.
Even so, economic conditions in Mississippi mean that a typical family still cannot afford care, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services standards, and must spend 22% of its income on child care.
The child care voucher, a critical work support for low-income families, is not extra cash in a parent’s pocket, but ensures kids have a safe place to go with supervision and socialization while they are at work.
The child care division’s COVID-19 emergency policy, filed in April of 2020, suspended work requirements for the child care program. It stated that once the governor determined child care was no longer in an emergency condition, clients would be given a 60 day period to begin searching for a job or enroll in school in order to remain eligible for the benefit.
But providers told Mississippi Today that the department offered them no warning.
“The child care providers had no clue. They woke up one morning, checked their email and had termination, termination, termination, termination, termination,” said Debbie Ellis, owner of child care center The Learning Tree in Greenwood. “… I cannot imagine the benefit to the state.”
Mississippi Department of Human Services did not respond to Mississippi Today’s requests for interviews or comment for this story, which began in August, by the time of publication. The agency plans to host a virtual public hearing to gather comments about policies within the Child Care Payment Program tomorrow, September 21st, at 11 a.m.
The American Rescue Plan Act, enacted in March, provided a $15 billion supplement to the annual Child Care and Development Fund, which mainly funds the voucher program, and an additional $24 billion in child care stabilization grants for struggling providers. Mississippi received $200 million and $319 million, respectively, which it has yet to push out.
Carol Burnett, director of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative, said the department has expressed reluctance to use the money to offer more vouchers because since the money is not permanent, parents may lose the benefit when the funding dries up.
“You don’t want to build up all this capacity and then not be able to sustain it,” Chad Allgood, director of MDHS’s Division of Early Childhood Care and Development, told PBS NewsHour during its series on child care that aired in July.
Burnett doesn’t buy it: “God forbid we serve another kid this year that we can’t serve four years from now when the money runs out,” she said.
The voucher has historically served just a fraction of the population, and Burnett estimates the program currently reaches roughly 25% of low-income children who need care. In the past, the state has chalked up the low number to federal funding shortfalls. Now, Burnett argues, the state has a chance to make a difference.
At the Sept. 9 meeting of the State Early Childhood Advisory Council, the group Gov. Tate Reeves appointed to advise him on early childhood education and child care, Allgood downplayed the magnitude of the department’s recent cash infusion.
“I think that will help somewhat, but it’s not the end-all answer. I think there’s still an issue of the expense of child care,” Allgood said. “And we do have subsidy assistance, but frankly, the normal funding that we get and even the additional money that we got to help provide subsidy, it’s not enough. It’s just not enough.”
He added: “We want to serve every family, you know, that’s eligible and that has a need, but the federal funding alone is not going to get it, not going to get us there.”
Providers complain that Allgood and DHS leadership are dragging their feet.
“Child care providers are closing their doors. Child care providers are being forced into quarantine without personal protective equipment, with over a half billion dollars sitting at DHS to stabilize existing businesses,” Ellis said.
Ellis said she expected more from the department and the child care division’s relatively new leadership, especially during the pandemic and unstable economy.
“But many are not surprised by the decisions that were made for redetermination,” Ellis said.
At the recent State Early Childhood Advisory Council meeting, Allgood led a broad discussion about the status of early childhood in Mississippi.
“A very, very important question is, when we look at the access to these services, the experiences that the children and families are having as they’re accessing the services and the outcomes that are being provided through these services: Are they equitable?” Allgood said. “I think that’s going to be key. And I think ensuring equity across the board is something that we definitely need to make sure that we’re addressing within our early childhood system as a whole.”
The primary responsibility of Allgood’s division is to administer the federal Child Care Development Fund, the annual fund that supplies child care vouchers to low-income parents.
But in the nearly two-and-a-half hour meeting, Allgood made little mention of the state’s voucher program or how they planned to spend more than $500 million in extra child care dollars, nor did they discuss expanding the assistance to needy families.
Allgood did say the department plans to start accepting applications from child care centers for $319 million in direct stabilization grants on Oct. 1. That money goes directly to the providers. He did not provide any other specifics.
“We are working very diligently to try to get those out,” Allgood said. “What we have run up against is the federal government, they issued the money, but then the guidance came later. And so we have had to sort of, you know, plan as we go and we’ve asked questions and, you know, we’re still getting guidance from the feds.”
“Every single penny of that money will go directly to child care,” he added.
At least fourteen states have already opened stabilization grant applications according to the federal government and some, such as Illinois, began sending payments to providers as early as May.
“We’re way behind the implementation timeline,” said Burnett, who served as the state’s administrator of the Child Care Development Fund in the early 2000s.
Allgood said one hold up is that the department wants to train providers on how to track their spending.
“We, in turn, have to monitor child care providers on the use of the funding. If there’s a misuse of funding, inadvertently even, we do not want to have to go and recoup that money a year from now, that would be devastating,” Allgood said.
Providers have not received any information about what the stabilization grants to providers will look like — how much money they will be (Allgood called them “sizable”) or how they may be spent.
Burnett said she also worries about the scope of the grants.
“I think Mississippi is going to be really conservative in what — out of all the options that states can pick — Mississippi is going to choose,” Burnett said.
“I suspect we’re going to prioritize stuff over staff,” Burnett explained. “Bottles of bleach instead of wage stipends for workers.”
The department also hasn’t addressed the barriers parents face, such as the work requirement, in applying for child care assistance. Eight-in-10 child care centers say they serve parents who are eligible for the voucher but are unable to get approved, according to the recent survey.
Ellis said parents can be denied or terminated from the program for as little as having an expired driver’s license.
Another hurdle to receiving the voucher is the state’s requirement that low-income parents, usually single moms, use state-contracted attorneys to go after their child’s father in court for child support money.
Often, family advocates say, it’s not that a mother wants to shirk child support, but that she has her own working arrangement with the father and wants to avoid making waves.
Kassandra Fisher, owner of Agape Love Learning Center in Greenwood, said that the requirement can cause problems even for parents who are already participating in the child support program. She said she’s seen parents lose their voucher simply for failing to provide the proper proof.
“We don’t have an office for child support in Greenwood, it’s in Grenada. So that’s another problem for parents,” Fisher said. “If I’m working that Monday and I can’t afford to take off, trying to make sure I got my (25) hours and you’re telling me I gotta meet the child support requirements. I got to try to get to Grenada because I might call the phone up, and it’s just so many people calling on the phone, I might not reach nobody. See, that what’s going on.”
“It’s kind of hard to tell people that are struggling to work to take off to go try to get a child support letter if they can’t get nobody on the phone,” Fisher said.
Eight-in-10 surveyed providers say the child support requirement discourages parents from applying, and 73% say it results in denials for their clients — both of which translate to an estimated 9,700 to 11,100 children in centers who are unable to access the voucher because of the state’s demand.
Dana Kidd, former deputy administrator of economic assistance for Mississippi’s welfare agency, admitted to Mississippi Today in 2018 that the requirement put mothers in a difficult position, “but that’s our state policy and federal regulations.”
State statute does not mandate that the department impose child support requirements on child care recipients, according to legal experts hired by Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative.
But a few months ago, when Burnett visited Mississippi Department of Human Services Director Bob Anderson to discuss eliminating the extra burden, Burnett said Anderson denied that the requirement was a deterrent to any parents in need of the voucher.
“They’ve quit arguing now that they’re mandated by state law,” Burnett said. “Now they’re saying it’s just not a problem.”
The state doesn’t require recipients of other types of government aid — the kind that often benefits middle class or wealthier families — to enter the state’s child support system to qualify. The state does not, for instance, impose this requirement on families receiving state-funded college scholarships or the business executives who secure millions in incentives from the state each year.
Burnett, who has advocated for working moms for over two decades, said the current state of child care in Mississippi isn’t just characterized by the state’s slow rolling out of federal grant funds; or its refusal to revisit the child support requirement; or its decision to redetermine eligibility during a pandemic; or its reluctance to use additional federal funding to supply more certificates.
“It’s all of it put together that results in parents that need child care not getting it,” Burnett said.
In Smith’s case, losing her child care — her punishment from the state for not working at least 25 hours — could have threatened her job altogether.
She’s thankful her employer has been understanding. Her daughter returned to school in August, relieving some of the stress of juggling two kids and her job at home all day.
Just recently, as Smith was considering picking up a second job to get more hours, the insurance company gave her a promotion, bumping her to around 40 hours a week. It’s a sign of progress for this single mom, recognition of her tact with customers.
Since the $12-an-hour job is currently remote, she’s making it work, however exhausting.
Evenings are harder now. Smith is still working when Serenity gets off the bus after school. If Martez is napping, it won’t be for long.
“She’ll have him all hyped up, so I’ll be like, ‘Lord have mercy,’” she said. “I need to get her after school care and I need to get him in day care. That will help out a lot.”
“That’s not going to be possible without the voucher,” she added.
Child care centers say it can take 60 days for eligible applicants to be approved.
And Smith’s employer could call her back to the office any day now.
-- Article credit to Anna Wolfe of Mississippi Today --