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Amy Berry, director of Little Saints Academy near downtown Jackson and a longtime early educator, could just as easily be considered a workforce specialist.
That’s true because of growing research about the massive brain development starting on Day One of a baby’s life and the correlation between quality early childhood care and a strong workforce generations later.
“Mississippi’s workforce of tomorrow is in daycare today,” Gov. Phil Bryant said in his 2019 State of the State address, noting the state’s latest emphasis on child care.
But Berry, who previously directed Jackson State University’s Mississippi Learning Institute, knows the limitations of her impact on a child living in poverty.
One of Berry’s students, a 4-year-old, has a chronic blood disease that strains his family’s sparse resources. He’s cared for by a single mom who works multiple jobs, mostly in fast food restaurants that provide neither a living wage or stable employment.
“The baby, he’s quiet,” Berry said. “He doesn’t make … eye contact all of the time. You just know that there’s some things going on there and you try to compensate with love and with, ‘I’ve got a book for you. You’re going to take this book home.’ You try things like that, but you know there are some situations there that you just can’t (solve) even though he’s with you.”
In the latest annual Annie E. Casey Foundation KIDS COUNT report released Monday, Mississippi maintained its 48th ranking from last year for overall child well-being, with 27 percent of its children living in poverty in 2017. That’s a decline from 33 percent in 2010. Before 2018, Mississippi had ranked dead last in the report every year but one dating back to 1991.
“I feel like I sound like a broken record, but I also feel like we have to keep saying the same things,” said Heather Hanna, co-director of Mississippi KIDS COUNT. “We know that poverty puts children at risk of adverse childhood experiences because the families, they’re experiencing more stress, which makes them more vulnerable to developmental issues. We know that when children are born into poverty, they actually form less brain tissue due to family stress. So it’s not always about personal choices, it’s often about the environment that we’re born into. I think in this state, if we want better choices, we need to create better environments for our children to grow up in.”
Over one-third of children in Mississippi live in families in which no parent has full-time, year-round employment, which could be exacerbated by Mississippi’s high rate of single-parent families. Mississippi’s single-parent families have grown from 35 percent in 1990 to 46 percent in 2017, the highest rate of any state.
One of the best ways to ensure the success of her student, Berry said, is to help his mom find stable employment in a living wage job.
“If she had a job that paid more and that was more secure, that she wouldn’t have to feel as if, ‘Well, I’m forever looking for something else to get a few dollars more,’” Berry said.
Not enough job openings in Mississippi afford this opportunity. Mississippi Today analyzed the 36,716 job listings that contained salary data on the Mississippi Works search engine, which underpins the governor’s workforce agenda, in early June. Just one-third were in positions that pay an average salary over $14.51 an hour — the amount a person would have to make to afford a two bedroom apartment according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
While the state’s unemployment rate reached a historic low in 2018, there were 62,700 unemployed people looking for work in Mississippi in April.
Berry said she hasn’t seen the 4-year-old student in recent weeks. His mom receives a voucher through the federal child care program, the Child Care Development Fund, to pay for his enrollment in the academy. “There’s just some situations that she’s going through now, because even with the voucher, parents must pay a portion,” Berry said.
Since 2017, Mississippi has significantly reduced its waiting list for child care assistance, one of the strongest work supports for parents, after it had ballooned to over 20,000 children. By 2019, the state said it had eliminated the wait list altogether. Still, the program is only serving a fraction of those low-income parents who are eligible, according to a 2018 Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative report, which estimated there are 60,000 young, low-income children disconnected from any publicly available early childhood program.
Historically, “the state is totally underrated, underfunded. We don’t have the interest at heart of the people that really matter,” Barry said.
“Before this, a long time ago, I was a school teacher, so I taught language arts in Jackson Public Schools. So I’ve got lots of history. And for the most part, the people that really matter, those people don’t always have our children at heart. They say that they do but their actions don’t always demonstrate it,” Berry said.
In every year but two since 1997, the Mississippi Legislature has failed to fully fund the public school funding formula that determines how much money is needed to provide an adequate education, much of which is based on the socioeconomics of the students in each district. The state’s pre-K program is only big enough to serve five percent of the state’s 4-year-olds.
But attitudes are changing in state leadership with the acknowledgement of just how important those early years are. Mississippi is in the process of changing its quality rating system for child care centers, such as Berry’s academy, and those eventually designated a “comprehensive” center will be reimbursed through the child care voucher at almost double the standard rate, said Laurie Smith, executive director of the State Early Childhood Advisory Council.
Smith said if she walked into 10 child care centers today, she estimates eight would be performing moderately, one would be exceeding expectations and one would be failing standards. But 15 years ago, Smith said, nine would have been performing poorly.
“They’re not where we need them to be,” Smith said, referring to the centers. “How we get them there is not just a grant funded project that comes and goes … There’s never been a system where every child care center can get consistent help over time and that is what we’re trying to do right now.”
Mississippi received a $10.6 million federal grant in December to help implement the structural changes, which includes establishing Early Childhood Academies and sending coaches from community colleges to train child care instructors in educational methods. The state will be eligible for another $50 million grant this fall.
“I’ve realized that there are pockets of people with the same passion, with the same interests that I have and we’ve banned together,” Berry said.
By connecting early childhood education and the workforce — Smith is also director of the State Workforce Investment Board — Mississippi is attempting to address the family as a whole through connected services.
But according to experts, a work-oriented approach to helping families isn’t likely to significantly reduce child poverty. That would require robust cash supports, such as a government child allowance.
In February, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, released a three-year, $750,000 report requested by U.S. Congress in 2015 outlining ways to cut child poverty in half within 10 years.
In “The Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty,” researchers simulated a number of policy packages, but only the most aggressive, such as significant increases to the existing Earned Income Tax Credit, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and housing voucher programs, met their goal of reducing poverty by 50 percent. Those proposals would cost at least $90 billion a year.
The most effective policies for tackling poverty are costly and do not encourage employment, the researchers found, though most governments, including in Mississippi, have maintained a work first attitude following welfare reform in the 1990s. The work-oriented proposed policies — including focusing child care vouchers to the lowest income families, raising the minimum wage and implementing workforce training programs — could cost between $9 billion and $44 billion a year, but would still require increases to the tax credit and only curb poverty by 20 to 35 percent.
The authors omitted from their research other popular anti-poverty policy proposals, such as pregnancy prevention and marriage counseling, due to lack of evidence that they work on any magnitude.
For example, mandatory work requirements, which Mississippi ties to many benefits, such as food assistance, “are at least as likely to increase as to decrease poverty.”
Smith rejected the idea that Mississippi’s approach to poverty is work-oriented, but said it is focused on training instead.
“This family-based approach we’re taking doesn’t say, ‘You have to work to do all this,’” Smith said. “It actually says, ‘We want to help you get into job training and we want to help you get your SNAP certificates and we want to help you get your Medicaid and everything you need to be successful while we’re helping your child at the same time.’”
Asked about the state’s appetite for increasing cash benefits, such as implementing its own state Earned Income Tax Credit as 29 state have done, Smith said it hasn’t arisen in policy discussions.
While the Roadmap authors note the large cost for the programs likely to work, the numbers are small compared to the estimated national annual price of child poverty — $800 billion to $1.1 trillion — as a result of increased crime, health issues and low economic mobility when those children enter adulthood.
“We can pay up front or we can pay down the road. It’s a choice,” Hanna said.