Shykeria, Doria and Skylar play inside a hula hoop at the Boys and Girls Club Walker unit in south Jackson on Sept. 14, 2020. Credit: Anna Wolfe

After cries from struggling child care providers, many of whom were forced to stay open during the pandemic even while schools closed, Mississippi has started taking federal grant applications from day care centers.

The Mississippi Department of Human Services received $319 million from the American Rescue Plan Act in April to help stabilize the child care industry. Centers may apply for a direct grant, which could be over $400,000 depending on their capacity size, on the agency’s website.

The Division of Early Childhood Care and Development hosted a virtual meeting on Dec. 1 to answer questions about the application process and how the money may be used.

The grant program, called Child Care Strong, is sure to provide breathing room to often understaffed, cash-strapped centers and ideally create the opportunity for improvements within the facilities.

Patricia Young, owner of School of Champions Development & Learning Academy in Itta Bena, said she hopes to use the money to hire and retain more workers and increase salaries for certified teachers.

“We are on pins and needles. We need the money,” Young said.

But the influx in funding won’t necessarily translate to more working parents who need child care getting it — which Mississippi has an interest in if it wants to grow its economy and strengthen its workforce.

“A lot of our centers, they’re under-enrolled, they’ve got empty seats, they’ve got parents who are on their waiting lists needing child care, it’s just the parent can’t afford to pay,” said Carol Burnett, founder of the Low-Income Child Care Initiative, which primarily works with child care centers that accept the state’s Child Care Payment Program voucher for low-income parents. “So if this money steps in and pays, then conceivably they could add children and fill those slots. But there’s nothing in the application or in the requirements from DHS that they do that.”

Young said many working parents in her area, who work at fish plants and fast food restaurants, cannot afford child care out-of-pocket but are also struggling to get their application for a voucher approved at the Mississippi Department of Human Services. Thousands of parents have been kicked off the program in the last year, according to a recent center survey, and due to the red tape, the program is only serving just a fraction of those who would qualify based on their income.

Burnett said she’s concerned that the state is making the grants accessible to well-off child care centers that serve parents in the professional class, so the state isn’t targeting the money to the highest need areas. Meanwhile, officials have said they don’t intend to put more money in the voucher program, which they say is serving every eligible applicant despite widespread complaints.

State agency officials argue the federally stated purpose for the stabilization funding isn’t necessarily to expand child care. However, “providers are encouraged not to collect copayments from families during the grant period to the extent possible and prioritize such relief for families struggling to make either type of payment,” the website states.

The state received an additional $199 million in its Child Care Development Fund block grant, which provides funding for the voucher, from the American Rescue Plan Act. Agency officials have said they may use this funding to supplement the stabilization grants directly to child care centers.

The state could use this money to fund vouchers for the many parents who would become eligible for the program if the agency did away with a requirement — that neither federal regulations or state law requires — that single parents sue their child’s noncustodial parent in order to qualify for child care assistance.

But despite an outcry from providers and advocates, the agency has not entertained changing the policy.

Child care centers may use the new grant funding on “personnel costs, rent or mortgage payments, insurance, facility maintenance and improvements, personal protective equipment (PPE) and COVID-related supplies, training, and professional development related to the health and safety practices, goods and services needed to resume providing care, mental health supports for children and early educators, and reimbursement of costs associated with the current public health emergency,” and agency press release said.

Licensed or registered child care providers are eligible for the grant if they are in good standing with the department, federal accountability reports, and have not violated some rule, such as committing fraud within the voucher program or having their license suspended by the Department of Health. The centers do not have to participate in the voucher program to qualify. Head start and state or locally-funded Pre-K programs are not qualified.

“This third round of direct pandemic-related support is part of our continued service to Mississippi children and childcare providers who continue to feel the effects of the pandemic,” Mississippi Department of Human Services director Bob Anderson said in the release. “Childcare is essential to our workforce and getting families back to work in support of our state economy and providing tangible help to Mississippi children to create hope for tomorrow.” 

The state also issued $47 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, funding through similar grants to child care centers in 2020.

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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.