Mississippi’s voucher program to help single working parents has been underfunded and difficult to navigate because of red tape. Carol Burnett and Matt Williams of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative explain how an influx of federal pandemic stimulus dollars could help. 

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Geoff Pender: Welcome to The Other Side Podcast. This is Geoff Pender with Mississippi Today. I’m joined today by my colleague, Anna Wolfe. Anna, hello. How are you doing? 

Anna Wolfe: Good. Thank you. Thanks for having me. 

Geoff Pender: And we’re also joined today by Carol Burnett. She’s the founder and director of the Mississippi Low-Income Childcare Initiative. Hello.

Carol Burnett: Hello. 

Geoff Pender: Welcome to the show. Thank you for being on. 

And we are also joined with Matt Williams, who is the research director for the Mississippi Low-Income Childcare Initiative. Matt, thank you for joining us. 

Matt Williams: Thank you so much for having us this morning. 

Geoff Pender: Sure, and a lot of topics to discuss. Anna, this is something you’ve been looking at closely for quite some time. Can you explain what brings us here today and some of the topics we’re going to cover? 

Anna Wolfe: Sure. So Carol and I have been talking about this for years now. And she’s here to talk about this sort of ever present problem within the state’s administration of the childcare payment program, which is the voucher that allows low income parents to afford childcare so that they can go to work, which is that it’s only ever reached a sliver of families in the state who qualify, who need it. But as I understand it in this particular moment, we have this unique opportunity to address this disparity because of all of this money that we’ve been getting from COVID relief packages. And we can really address this if the state has the vision to do something different and decide to target that money to help families who need it.

So I’ll let you explain sort of how we got here. And where we are. 

Carol Burnett: Alright, thanks. The state gets a federal block grant, and it’s called the Childcare Development Fund. States are allowed to shape that program with a great deal of discretion about the rules at the state level. There are very few federal rules, and Mississippi calls that program the Childcare Payment Program, and our state agency that administers that is the Department of Human Services. Parents apply to get childcare assistance. The assistance is provided in the form of vouchers to eligible parents. The vouchers that a parent receives help cover the cost of the childcare. They use the voucher, they go out and buy their childcare from a provider that participates in the program and the voucher covers the lion’s share of the cost.

So it makes childcare affordable for working parent who otherwise would find it very difficult to afford childcare because childcare is very expensive. That program serves families up to 85% of the state median income, which is a pretty high income level. I mean for a family of three we’re talking about like $45,000 a year.

So it really is a work support. It’s intended to be an assistance for those families who are among the working poor. Always that program has been super helpful for the families that have been fortunate to get a voucher. But as you pointed out, it’s always been inadequate to serve more than just around 25, 30% of the eligible families in this state.

So we’ve advocated that bigger investment go in, so more of our families in the state can be served. We’ve gotten a lot of information from our state economist who’s said that parents with young children would participate more in the labor force if they had affordable childcare. So there are lots of reasons for this program to be invested in that would be good for the children for getting early childhood, the parent for being able to go to work, the state for getting additional income into the economy.

So it’s good for everyone, but it’s been limited by the amount of money. And the other thing that has been a constant problem is the state has imposed a lot of application procedural barriers that make it difficult for parents to get into the program. And then once they’re in, they have to be redetermined eligible periodically.

And that redetermination process also has a lot of barriers in it. And so the other part of the work we’ve been doing is trying to make that whole access and retention process easier for the parents. So we have a moment now, as you pointed out, because the state has over $500 million in childcare money that can go toward shoring up the childcare industry that has suffered a lot of impact from COVID, expand services to larger number of children. The state has a lot of options under HHS guidance for how those funds could be used. And so it’s a moment when we could really do a lot better with this program that helps everybody.

Geoff Pender: And for prospective, $519 million that’s available through the American Rescue Plan Act. And that’s compared to typically we would get $60 million a year for this program, around that. So huge. 

Carol Burnett: It’s a big increased investment. It’s really unprecedented.

Anna Wolfe: What has the state indicated that they’re going to do with that money?

Carol Burnett: In the short term, they’re continuing some investments that have been really helpful. They’re continuing to eliminate the requirement that parents have to pay a copayment, share a portion of the childcare fee. They’re reimbursing childcare providers for services at a higher reimbursement rate, and they are also paying providers based on the number of eligible children that are enrolled in the center as opposed to the number of days eligible children attend, which helps to stabilize the revenue stream for providers.

And that’s really helpful. They have said that they’re going to make grants available to childcare centers for activities that are identified as eligible under the HHS guidelines for the stabilization grants, but we haven’t seen that grant program emerge yet. So we don’t really know what the scope of that is going to be and what eligible activities will be included.

Anna Wolfe: You’re in close contact with childcare centers all over the state, and you’ve surveyed them. Can you tell us what problems they’ve been dealing with lately? 

Carol Burnett: Yes. We recently completed a survey of the childcare centers across the state that participate in this childcare payment program. Not all childcare centers do, but most do.

And we heard a pretty consistent response from the large number of centers who responded to our survey, identifying these access and retention barriers that I was referring to. And the biggest one of those is that the state requires single parents who are 96% of the families on this program, mostly single moms, the state requires single parents to comply with child support enforcement before they can qualify to get childcare assistance. And that requirement childcare providers identified on our survey is an enormous deterrent for parents to even try to apply. For parents who are trying to comply, it is also procedural barrier that makes it difficult for them to navigate the application process.

And so the majority of the respondents told us that that requirement was the number one thing that is problematic for parents trying to get their childcare assistance.

Anna Wolfe: Right. So it’s, it’s kind of two-pronged. So we’ve got like funding issues historically that we haven’t received enough money in past years to serve everyone who needs it. But then the state doesn’t really make it very easy to get on the program in the first place even if you do qualify. What can we ask of the state to fix this?

Carol Burnett: The application process problems that were identified on our survey included things like not being able to get anybody from DHS on the telephone or submitting documents that DHS says weren’t submitted, even though the provider or the parent has evidence that they were in fact submitted or that a document was submitted, but DHS said that it was too dark or it didn’t, you know, there was something about it wasn’t adequate and so they had to be submitted again. Well, the application process has to be completed within a 60 day period of time. So if DHS gets around to looking at the documents on day 58, and says, “These aren’t acceptable,” you’ve got to send them in again. And if they’re not submitted before the 60 day deadline, that’s another problem. We also heard that DHS requires that a parent submit their most recent pay stub as documentation of their income. Well, if they’re paid every two weeks, and they submitted the most recent one when they submitted the application, but DHS doesn’t get around to looking at it until another month, then all of a sudden the pay stubs is not the most recently received. 

And so then they have to start over again, or if they bump up against the 60 day deadline, it means they have to go back and reapply and start that whole process again. So that’s the kind of stuff that happens when providers who frequently intervene in this to try to kind of be a parent advocate with DHS to get the parent through this process.

And often providers even have copies of a lot of the documents that are required because they know that they have the internet connection that some of the times the parents don’t have the capacity to scan an email and upload or, you know, do the application online as it’s required. So providers intervene a lot to help out, and they see a lot of occasions where this kind of communication problem and procedural problem get in the way. And the majority of the providers that responded to our survey said they have eligible parents on their waiting list, trying to get their child into the childcare center, they’ve got room for them to be there.

And the reason they can’t move the child into an available slot is because they can’t get the parent through this application process at DHS. 

Anna Wolfe: Right. And when the pandemic hit, they waived some of those eligibility requirements for parents to get the voucher, right?

Carol Burnett: Well, only for parents in a special new program that they created. They named it a special voucher program that was supposed to be available with some of that initial COVID funding for essential workers. But those essential workers they exempted from having to meet income requirements. They also exempted from having to meet the child support requirement while the regular voucher recipients also were essential workers, but still had to meet the income requirement and had to meet the child support requirements.

So it was a very inequitable setup, but that program has ended now. 

Anna Wolfe: And we just went through redetermination period in this last year for parents who were on the voucher prior to that, and apparently kicked off lots of parents from the program. 

Carol Burnett: Yeah. The annual redetermination of eligibility that I mentioned was waived for a time during COVID, but recently DHS has put it back in place.

And when that got put back in place, it resulted in the termination of families off of the program, not because they weren’t eligible again, but because they just weren’t able to navigate the process. 

Anna Wolfe: Yeah. I mean, this is a workforce problem, right? I mean, what is the impact when women, single moms, typically cannot get the care that they need?

Carol Burnett: It’s very much a workforce problem. And we think it would be really helpful if some employers and some of our allies in the workforce system would recognize the significance of this program to increasing Mississippi’s labor participation rate— 

Geoff Pender: which is lowest in the country, or has been often. 

Carol Burnett: Exactly. Improving that rate is a goal of many of our state leaders. And so making this program work so that parents get the childcare they need so they can go to work would be a very effective strategy for meeting the goal that they have. 

Geoff Pender: Carol and Matt talked about some of this money available could definitely help, but as I understand from DHS or the governor’s office right now, it’s not been really clear that any of this money will be used to help more children. What’s the status of that?

Carol Burnett: DHS says they’re reluctant to use the money in any way that can’t be sustained past the time the money is available. So in terms of increasing the number of children currently being served, they’re reluctant to do that now because they might not be able to continue serving those children three or four years from now when the money’s no longer here.

And we contend that that three or four years of service would be hugely beneficial in terms of early childhood education. It would also be hugely beneficial in terms of a workforce and income investment for the parent to get affordable childcare. And if you plan in advance for having that spike in income, you could find ways to manage the loss of those funds in future years if you were looking into the future. I strongly feel like if sustainability of service was a real goal, the procedural problems that parents currently on the program have through redetermination would be a great place to start because right now the biggest sustainability challenge we have is parents currently on the program right now making it through redetermination.

So there’s so many things that could be done if sustainability was really the issue. 

Matt Williams: I would add that the survey we just did really supported that. I mean, we did not hear from childcare providers that their concern was taking on too many new kids and not being able to sustain the services three years from now. What we heard was as one provider put it in response to a question that we included on the survey about whether or not DHS should spend the ARPA funds for childcare on increasing the number of kids receiving childcare, one provider said they definitely need childcare. And 92% of the providers that we surveyed said that Mississippi needs to spend these funds to serve more children than CPPP. 

Geoff Pender: Matt or Carol said early on that only a fraction of probably the eligible kids are being served. What are those numbers roughly?

Carol Burnett: The most recent number that we’ve seen reported from Mississippi was from last year that our state served 20,900 kids, and we estimate that about 112,000 are eligible. 

Anna Wolfe: You know, our state leaders love to talk about the emphasis on early childhood development, but childcare centers, private childcare providers usually are not being included in that conversation. Can you talk about sort of how the childcare payment program relates to early childhood development and how that’s kind of left out of the conversation? 

Carol Burnett: Childcare centers that participate in this program have fielded over the years. I mean, we did a report on how Mississippi’s handled this childcare program over its 20 years of existence. And one of the interesting things was how frequently there were efforts from the state level to impose different quality improvement ideas onto the childcare centers that participate. Those quality improvement ideas would change frequently. So we had tried this idea and then it would be gone and then we would try this idea and then it would be gone.

So the childcare centers that participate are always the impacted centers for any of these ideas for how to address the quality of early childhood education. But they are rarely able to participate successfully because they’re so under-resourced. Every survey that we’ve done of childcare providers has shown that they’re eager to participate in quality improvement activities, but the obstacle that stands in the way is that they don’t have the money to implement the kinds of quality improvement criteria that are usually used to evaluate whether a center has a quality early childhood education experience or not. We recently surveyed providers on that point, and they were in complete agreement with what the traditional definition is of quality, but they added to that definition that they needed to be financially resourced to be able to implement those criteria.

And they wanted to add to the definition that the service needed to be affordable to parents and the service needed to be available hours, that support employment, so that the system was equitable. Because when the affordability isn’t there and the hours that support work isn’t there, it’s too frequently the case that it’s women and women of color in particular who are most impacted by the absence of those features of any kind of equality definition. 

Geoff Pender: Do you know at this point, are there deadlines coming up as far as DHS having to say what they might do with this money? As I understand it from speaking with you earlier, they’ve essentially only done kind of a copy and paste plan, a placeholder plan, I guess, is how maybe they’ve even described it. So we really don’t know yet how they might use this money. When does that have to be figured out? 

Carol Burnett: What you’re referring to is the states are all required to submit state plans to HHS, even absent of the American Rescue Plan Money, so it’s just a regular sequence in administering this program. It just happened to be the case that this year when they had all that extra ARPA funding, it also came at the same time that they were supposed to submit their new state plan to HHS for the years 2022 to 2024. And the state plan they submitted really didn’t reveal much about what they plan to do in the future.

And as you cite, you know, we were concerned about the fact that the plan that did get submitted had old information in it from prior plans that had been submitted. And DHS indicated that it was, as you say, a placeholder and that they would amend it as they figured out what they were going to do.

So, no, we don’t yet know. With regard to the deadlines for when they have to make a decision or when they have to spend these funds, Matt, do you know offhand? I mean, there are some liquidation of funds and obligation of funds deadlines that are built in to some of the funds, but I’m not really sure what the deadline is for when they need to spend these?

Matt Williams: Yeah. I don’t know offhand the details, but I believe the ARPA money and some of the other money we’re looking at a liquidation period of about three years. 

Geoff Pender:  Yeah. The ARPA plan in general, looking at other funds, I don’t know if this would be the same. I think it’s gotta be allocated by December 24 and actually spent by December 26.

I don’t know if that would be the same for this money. Somewhere in that range perhaps.

Anna Wolfe: How hard is this program to administer? Like what might the state be dealing with that is preventing them from pushing this money out? 

Carol Burnett: It’s not hard to administer. I think there are two issues at play. One is it’s so influenced by politics. Because it’s housed at the Department of Human Services and DHS is an executive agency, the head is appointed by the governor. And so it really is what DHS does and doesn’t do is really determined by political decisions more than by how to do best with the program you’re charged to administer.

The other thing is it’s a very decentralized program. Vouchers go to individual parents. The vouchers are used in a whole lot of very small businesses located all over this state, and the decentralization of it I think contributes to the lack of awareness that many people have about it but it’s very influenced by the attitudes around public assistance.

And that means that we’re dealing with a lot of negative attitudes toward poor people, toward Black people that there’s just a lot of gender and race bias that’s overlaid onto this program. And that’s why we really feel like it needs to be characterized as a work support program and seen as one of the things that we could invest in that could increase the number of employees.

I mean, gosh, for net right now, it would be hugely helpful to have a larger number of available employees. And I just want to say too that, you know, DHS says that they don’t have a waiting list for this program that anybody who wants a voucher right now can get one. And that was another thing we found from the survey we did that providers actually have waiting lists, as I mentioned, of eligible parents who can’t get in because they can’t afford it, and they’re trying to navigate the application process. So it isn’t true that everybody who needs and wants childcare assistance has it right now. It is the case that there are a large number of parents who either haven’t been able to get through the application process or got kicked off through redetermination and need to get back on. 

Geoff Pender: Do childcare centers themselves have the capacity to serve more kids? 

Carol Burnett: They do. We’ve surveyed that they are as a system. I mean, there are individual centers that are full and some that have way more capacity than others, but system-wide our surveys show that there is about 30% under-enrollment among the centers that are in this program right now.

So the slots are there. The parents are there, the kids are there. The money is there. Let’s make it work.

Geoff Pender: What are some things that would make this work, set it up? And I think you’ve mentioned this before, provide it to kids until they age out, you know, three, four years or however long this money is going to last?

Carol Burnett: The children remain eligible until they’re age 12 in this program. So parents, even of young school aged kids, can get assistance. I mean, the number one thing that we have called for for a long time is to eliminate the requirement that parents have to comply with child support enforcement. That would be a huge help. 

Anna Wolfe: And that’s just automatically going to increase the number of eligible parents who are able to get the voucher because they don’t have to go through this process.

Matt Williams: Yeah. Our survey strongly supports that recommendation. We included two structured questions as I will refer to them where we had answer choices built in, and overwhelmingly providers indicated that the child support requirement is experienced as harmful to parents’ efforts to obtain CCPT assistance.

And what that looked like from the survey response was 83.2% of CCPT providers said the requirement deters parents in that they serve from even applying at all to CCPT. And another question found 73.2% of CCPP providers said the requirement results in parents, CCPT application denial. So parents that have tried to apply have been denied for that reason.

So that’s the vast majority of CCPT providers, indicating that this is a huge problem for parents that try to apply, for parents that can’t even begin the application process because of that requirement specifically. And when we looked at the number that providers reported of parents they serve that are affected by this policy either that it’s deterring their application or resulting in their denial, what we found was an estimated number of about 5,500 to 6,300 parents in Mississippi being served by the centers that participate in CCPT are locked out of that program because of this requirement. And that multiplies out into almost 10,000 kids.

I want to say too the survey finding on child support being a major barrier is really significant because not only did we get that response in those structured questions I mentioned, but we also asked an open-ended question and we didn’t include any structured response. And we didn’t even say, “Tell us about child support.”

In this open-ended question we just asked providers, “What are the main reasons that parents can’t get approved for CCPT?” And even in those open-ended responses, the providers, the vast majority of providers wrote in the child support requirement. And so it’s just another very strong indication from the survey, how harmful that requirement in that policy is.

And I do think these survey results show that if that policy was removed, we would be looking at a very immediate increase in parents who are able to get into this program. 

Geoff Pender: So parents can’t wade through one pile of red tape because they can’t get through the other pile of red tape, basically. 

Matt Williams: And that point just reminded me that the survey, also it providers and parents, when you talk to them about the child support enforcement requirement, it is essentially its own application process.

So when you’re, you know, you have a single mom applying for childcare assistance, she actually has to go also in that process apply essentially through the child support enforcement division. So it’s really a dual application process.

Carol Burnett: And it depends on DHS to be internally communicative about an application. So we’ve had parents that were trying to comply, and child support just didn’t get the information that childcare needed within DHS. And so that kind of stuff happens. But the other thing I just wanted to underscore about this child support requirement is that it’s not federally mandated in this program.

I want to make clear that it is a choice the state has made to impose this requirement, and it’s a choice they could make to eliminate it.

Anna Wolfe: And just in case for our listeners, this is a requirement that it makes usually single moms sue their children’s father in order to get child support, they have to turn that money over to the state in order to qualify for this assistance.

It’s not something that’s federally required. It creates problems for single moms who, you know, might not want to go that direction with their child’s father, but even when they are in the program through redetermination for childcare assistance, they have to go to a child support office and get a letter of certification, proving that they’re in the program in order to qualify for childcare.

So even just the process of going to get that letter can create a barrier, one because there’s not child support offices in every county and it can be difficult to make that happen, so I’ve found talking to parents and providers. 

Carol Burnett: Yeah. And parents have a range of reasons that this is such a barrier from, you know, a mom who might have a decent relationship with the dad and they’ve arranged an informal agreement where he’s going to pay the rent or the car note or whatever. And those agreements get renegotiated depending on if his employment situation changes all the way to cases where the absent dad is abusive either to the mom or to the children, and so there is literally a worry about harm. And in those cases, DHS says that there is a way to seek an exemption from having to comply. But we’ve had parents who had legal documentation of injunctions in court orders. And even in those cases, the DHS still imposed the requirement. We’ve had a mom tell DHS that the dad was dead, and the DHS was still requiring— I mean, it’s just really a barrier. It’s really a barrier. 

Anna Wolfe: And in particular is indicative of those attitudes surrounding public assistance and who should get them and why. 

Geoff Pender: Matt, Carol, thank you both for being here. This sounds like something we could perhaps schedule some future episodes and definitely want to keep track of what happens here.

We truly appreciate you joining us today and pointing out these issues, and yeah, we’re going to have to be watching to see what DHS does or doesn’t do. Hopefully some of these issues can be addressed with this extra funding. 

Carol Burnett: Well, thanks for having us. It’s good to talk about these issues and, you know, we are very hopeful. I think I was trying to make clear DHS has a lot of power to make decisions that would correct the problems. The survey gives us information from people who I think have the greatest expertise in this program because they use it. The parents who have it or trying to get it, the providers who rely on it, they see it in operation on the ground.

And so it’s consumer input for DHS to hear about how it’s working and not working and how changes could be made, and it’s easy for DHS to make those changes. So we would call on them to do so. 

Geoff Pender: Thank you everyone for being here.

Matt Williams: Thank you.

Adam Ganucheau: As we cover the biggest political stories in this state, you don’t want to miss an episode of The Other Side. We’ll bring you more reporting from every corner of the state, sharing the voices of Mississippians and how they’re impacted by the news. So, what do we need from you, the listener? We need your feedback and support.

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.

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.