The number of spots in child care for poor children in Mississippi will be reduced by 12,470 in September 2024 when the state’s allotment of federal COVID-19 relief funds is exhausted, a special Senate committee was warned on Tuesday.

The Mississippi Department of Human Services is currently using a substantial portion of its federal COVID-19 relief funds to open more spots in child care for poor parents working in low paying jobs, going to school or looking for employment.

But those COVID-19 funds are scheduled to be spent by September 2024, meaning the state will have only its normal federal appropriations to direct to the child care block grant, said Bob Anderson, the executive director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services.

The state is using the federal child care funds to provide services to 35,646 children across the state, according to latest statistics. But the COVID-19 funds the Department of Human Services is directing to child care is paying for the services for more than 12,400 of the children.

Anderson’s revelation came at hearings held by a special state Senate panel of lawmakers who have said they aim to pass policies to help women and children following the U.S. Supreme Court’s striking down of Roe v. Wade.

The nine-member Senate Study Group on Women, Children and Families, chaired by Sen. Nicole Akins Boyd, R-Oxford, was announced by Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann after the nation’s high court in June struck down longstanding Roe v. Wade and a dormant Mississippi abortion ban on the books subsequently took effect. Hosemann said it’s now incumbent on lawmakers to come up with policies to help mothers and children as experts predict the state will see an additional 5,000 unplanned births a year.

State Sen. Rod Hickman, a Democrat from Macon, asked Anderson at Tuesday’s hearing whether the state could use a portion of its federal TANF funds, normally called welfare benefits, to pay for the child care spots the state is slated to lose in September 2024.

Anderson said using TANF funds to shore up the child care program is “an option we are exploring.”

“We would be allowed to use up to 30% of the funds,” Anderson said. “But understand, people have a lot of other plans for that money as well. But yes, that’s always an option, assuming we haven’t already committed some of it.”

Mississippi is currently leaving about $18 million in available TANF funds on the table, according to information MDHS provided to Mississippi Today as well as a review of public expenditures. That could provide a year’s worth of vouchers for 4,600 children based on the 2022 reimbursement rate of $3,911 annually. In the most recent available federal report for 2020, Mississippi had an unused balance of roughly $50 million in federal TANF funds.

Anderson said that ultimately he would make the decision whether to convert some of the TANF funds to the Child Care Development Fund program.

Health, education and business experts told the panel Tuesday that lack of affordable child care is a major impediment to Mississippi moving forward economically and socially.

READ MORE: ‘We’re 50th by a mile.’ Experts tell lawmakers where Mississippi stands with health of mothers, children

“The number-one topic that continually comes up is child care, or lack of available child care,” said Ryan Miller, director of Accelerate Mississippi, the state’s workforce development agency. “It is a real issue, and anecdotally, industry has been saying this for years.”

Miller said lawmakers should consider tax or other financial incentives for businesses to create child care programs, consider providing more state funding for programs and eliminate policies that thwart single parents’ access to child care. Miller and others testifying Tuesday said that MDHS’ requirement — per state law — that single mothers identify a child’s father before receiving benefits such as child care appears to keep some from applying.

Boyd said she has heard this brought up repeatedly during committee research.

“I think there are issues about not only feeling like they’re being judged, but probably some protection reasons, safety for the mother,” Boyd said of the requirement.

Other requirements that prevent people from getting child care assistance — and thus from joining the workforce — include a state provision that single mothers turn their child support cases over to the state to participate in the federally funded Child Care Payment Program.

Gov. Tate Reeves’ appointed State Early Childhood Advisory Council has already recommended that the governor instruct MDHS remove this requirement, but it has not done so.

Anderson also told lawmakers how the so-called HOPE Act, passed in 2017 at the behest of the state’s Republican leadership to crack down on fraud in federal programs administered by the state for poor people, was actually costing the state money. The program looks for fraud by those receiving benefits through Medicaid, Temporary Aid for Needy Families and other welfare-related programs.

Hickman questioned some experts who testified Tuesday about strict regulations Mississippi has put in place in the name of fraud prevention that instead just prevent people from applying or qualifying for programs.

Mississippi has in recent years been plagued with fraud and embezzlement of government money, but it has mostly been perpetrated by powerful politicians, bureaucrats and business leaders, not the beneficiaries of the programs. Notably, investigations continue into theft or misspending of tens of millions of TANF dollars, not by the few people who receive the benefits, but by those who were supposed to administer them or provide services.

“I believe in preventing fraud, but we need ideas that make sense and not just provide barriers to poor people receiving help,” Hickman said. “We’ve seen the amount of people applying for benefits dramatically dropped when we made all these requirements … But so much keeps getting fed into this thought that poor people are creating the fraud.”

Anderson said that MDHS is being required to create fraud and abuse systems “that we will never use” because they are redundant or not needed.

“It’s costing the state,” Anderson said.

When Hickman asked Anderson if “we are costing the state by over-policing poor people” through the HOPE Act, Anderson said essentially that is true. Anderson, a former prosecutor who worked on governmental fraud cases, said fraud by the poor is “not a big part of the problem.”

He said the last two years prove that as the welfare fraud case has unfolded in Mississippi where numerous private contractors and those close to the contractors have benefitted from the program.

The Mississippi Low-Income Childcare Initiative, led by longtime advocate Carol Burnett, is among numerous groups outlining issues faced by women and children in Mississippi and making policy recommendations to the Senate panel.

In a written statement to the committee, the initiative’s recommendations include:

  • Reducing the mounds of red tape single mothers face in enrolling in and staying in the federally funded Child Care Payment Program.
  • Mississippi using “every dollar it can” on childcare assistance to serve more families. Currently, only about 25% of eligible children are served.
  • Extending postpartum Medicaid for new moms from the current two months to 12 months.

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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.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.