A mother and her child.

A push is underway to remove the requirement that parents receiving certain kinds of public assistance cooperate with child support enforcement officials or risk losing those benefits.

Currently, Mississippi requires custodial parents to go after the non-custodial parent for money in order to qualify for the federal Child Care and Development Fund, which provides child care vouchers to low-income parents so they can work.

Advocates say the child support enforcement requirement pits single parents, usually women, against the family’s non-custodial parent in order to receive an important work support. In many cases, women may be receiving informal payments and fear that involving the state will harm the relationship with the children’s father.

Grassroots advocates add that the child support requirement is just one of several hurdles low-income Mississippians face in accessing child care and other public assistance programs, many of which serve a fraction of the people in need, as well as perpetuate stigma and the idea that low-income people are less responsible with their finances.

That perception is reflected by the portion of state law that includes the child support enforcement requirement for recipients and establishes a “welfare fraud” hotline in the same statue, as well as in at least one measure a Democratic lawmaker has filed this year.

State Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel

On behalf of several male constituents, Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel, said she introduced a bill requiring women receiving child support to submit to the state a list of purchases on which they spent the money every three months.

“These men are saying that they don’t mind child support but they want the money to be spent on their child,” Scott said, adding that she believes women spend the money properly in 95 percent or more cases. “I’ve had several men to ask me if there was something to be done … I’m not saying that (misuse) is rampant but I am saying I’ve had several men come to me and ask if they could know what the money is being spent for.”

When the state enacted the child support and paternity test requirement in 2004, the wait list for child care vouchers fell from over 10,000 names to 200 in less than two months, according to the nonprofit Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative, illustrating the measure’s effects on parents and children. The initiative also found that 40 percent fewer children were served in day care centers the group surveyed after the rule change.

When low-income parents are unable to receive the voucher, they still have to find child care. Providers like Dianne Edmond Floyd of Kid’s World in Louisville told Mississippi Today they’ve cared for children at severely reduced rates when parents in their community had no other options.

“I take a loss to keep her (the mom) working because she can’t afford it,” Floyd said, referring to her center’s normal rate.

These day care operators say they too have faced financial hardships because of the lack of funding. “Not having the money to pay the light bill, the gas bill, we had to dig into our personal pockets,” said Helen Taylor of Brickfire Project in Starkville.

State Rep. Lataisha Jackson, D-Como.

The Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative is pushing for House Bill 1175, which removes the child support requirement, as well as House Bill 1174, which forces the state to fully fund matching requirements for the federal child care program. Rep. Lataisha Jackson, D-Como, authored both bills.

The latter bill addresses Mississippi’s failure to allocate matching funds for the program in 2017, leaving $13 million in federal child care funds on the table. This came at a critical time for the program, for which the number of parents waiting to receive vouchers had skyrocketed to over 21,000.

The Mississippi Department of Human Services, the agency that administers child care and other assistance programs, has since nearly wiped out its child-care wait list, but advocates say the need to increase child care funding persists. “It’s a bit of a moving target as long as we have more people that need it than we have money to serve,” said Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative Director Carol Burnett.

Burnett estimates more than 100,000 Mississippi children are eligible to receive a child-care voucher but the state is serving anywhere from 17,000 to 20,000 of them. Taylor said in 40 years of running her day care, there’s never been a year where all of the children enrolled at her center who qualified for a voucher received one.

Burnett said more children will be served when the state increases funding and removes barriers, like child support requirements, on parents applying for assistance.

The initiative conducted a survey among child-care providers in 2010 and 74 percent said parents are deterred from applying for vouchers because of the child support requirement. On average, the survey found there were six mothers in each center who have declined to apply for this reason.

Mississippi also imposes this requirement for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, though it is not required by the federal government.

Congress considered adding a federal child support requirement on SNAP nationwide in the 2018 Farm Bill, along with increased work requirements — reflecting the Trump Administration’s agenda on welfare reform — but the measure failed.

Carol Burnett

In May, Burnett’s group sent a letter to Congress urging leaders to drop the proposal, writing, “everyone agrees parents should support their children, but the policy to make this happen shouldn’t punish children and their single moms.”

Federal law already requires that applicants have child support cases before receiving the federal cash assistance program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or the health-insurance program, Medicaid.

Department of Human Services officials have acknowledged the challenges this requirement poses.

Dana Kidd, MDHS’s Deputy Administrator of Economic Assistance, told Mississippi Today in October that it’s common for a parent to withdraw their application for assistance due to the child support requirement.

“Some don’t want to go through the child support system. That could be a reason that they go ahead and withdraw their application, because they’d rather just get the financial payment from the child’s father and not send it through us. Because at some point (the state is) going to have to recoup the TANF benefits that were paid out,” Kidd said.

In other words, the state takes part of the non-custodial parent’s payments to pay itself back.

The state handled 293,451 child support cases last year and collected $368.9 million in payments, averaging $104 per child per month. Many mothers with child support cases never receive the funds. The agency spent $40.7 million to run the child support enforcement division in 2018, according to its budget.

Clarise Martin, 62, sits on the steps of her home in Natchez as she is photographed Friday, January 11, 2019.

In decades of complying with the child support office, Clarise Martin, a MDHS employee, has never received a child support payment from the father of either of her two children. The agency started garnishing one of their social-security checks recently, but the state has kept all the money, she said.

Asked if the policy is problematic, based on the position in which it puts single parents, Kidd said: “Yeah, it is, but that’s our state policy and federal regulations.”

However, using data to assess the effectiveness of the state’s goal of increasing family independence is difficult.

The state human-services department initially recorded that just one TANF application was denied in 2017 because the applicant refused to go after the absent father for money. The agency later said they had recorded the information inaccurately and in new reports, the human-services department does not include a category to say how many applicants failed to comply with child support enforcement. In 2018, 4,523 people withdrew their applications for TANF and 4,333 applications were incomplete, causing them all to be denied.

The state’s roughly 5,500 TANF recipients qualify for child care through the welfare program. The state transferred a chunk, nearly one-fourth, of its roughly $110 million federal TANF block grant to the Child Care and Development Fund in 2017. Previously, the state had transferred much less from TANF to child care.

In 2017, MDHS came under fire when it published its 2016 approval rate for TANF: the agency had approved just 1.4 percent of new applicants.

In the next annual reports for fiscal years 2017 and 2018, the department omitted the TANF approval rates, a dataset included in every annual report since at least 2004, the oldest report on the agency’s website.

Records the human-services department provided Mississippi Today show the agency approved 26 percent of applicants in 2017 and 23 percent in 2018. Agency officials have refused to answer questions about the wide variation in approval rates from 2016 to 2017 and has directed communication through the attorney general’s office, which does not have answers about TANF approval rates. Meanwhile, the overall TANF population continues to drop, according to the most recent federal financial data.Fewer than 7 percent of Mississippi families living below the poverty line receive this support.

Over the years, the human-services department has provided less and less annual information to the public. In 2004, the agency’s annual report was 108 pages long. In 2013, Gov. Phil Bryant’s first full fiscal year as governor, the report was 54 pages and in 2017, the human-services department Director John Davis’s first full year as the head of the agency, the report shrunk to 28 pages. The current 2018 report is 22 pages.

The Mississippi Ethics Commission issued an order in January confirming that the human-services department violated the Mississippi Public Records Act, the state statute that governs access to public information, by failing to provide records in a timely manner to this reporter.

MDHS did not respond to interview requests for this story and has refused to return dozens of calls and emails to Mississippi Today since September regarding this and other stories.

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Anna Wolfe is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who covers inequity and corruption in government safety net programs, nonprofit service providers and institutions affecting the marginalized. She began reporting for Mississippi Today in 2018, after she approached the editor with the idea of starting a poverty beat, the first of its kind in the state. Wolfe has received national recognition for her years-long coverage of Mississippi’s welfare program, in which she exposed new details about how officials funneled tens of millions of federal public assistance funds away from needy families and instead to their friends, families and the pet projects of famous athletes. Since joining Mississippi Today, she has received several national honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, the Livingston Award, two Goldsmith Prizes for Investigative Reporting, the Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the Sacred Cat Award, the Nellie Bly Award, the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, the Sidney Award, the National Press Foundation’s Poverty and Inequality Award and others. Previously, Wolfe worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide newspaper, where she covered city hall, health care, and wrote stories about hunger and medical billing, earning the Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism two years in a row. Born and raised on the Puget Sound in Washington State, Wolfe moved to Mississippi in 2012 to attend Mississippi State University, where she currently serves on the Digital Journalism Advisory Board. She has lived in Jackson, Mississippi since graduating in 2014.