Connecting Childcare With Employment Equity for Single Moms
Few areas of American life, particularly for working families, was impacted more severely by the COVID-19 pandemic than access to affordable childcare. Just as families needed more childcare options — either because of a change in work location or loss of employment entirely — many childcare providers had to shutter because of lengthy closures and the subsequent loss of income. In Mississippi, the Mississippi Low Income Childcare Initiative tries to connect families with available providers, as well as state financial assistance, while also putting single moms in need on a path to high-wage employment through a new program, Employment Equity for Single Moms. Spotlight spoke recently with Carol Burnett, the Initiative’s founder and executive director. The transcript of that conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Great to connect with you Carol. Tell us about your work with the Mississippi Low Income Childcare Initiative.
The Mississippi Low Income Childcare Initiative is a statewide advocacy organization that has for a long time really worked to strengthen Mississippi’s childcare assistance program for low-income working parents. Most of those parents in Mississippi are single moms and the childcare assistance program is really, really helpful for single moms who are able to get that assistance. But far too few eligible families are able to access benefits — only about 30% are served — and the application process that our state Department of Human Services has put in place has resulted in a lot of red tape and procedural rules that make it really hard for parents to navigate into the program. And then they have to reapply to verify their eligibility once a year.
So, most of our work has been aimed at trying to make all that work better and make that program serve a larger number of eligible families. But, over the years, we realized that while affordable childcare is incredibly important for single moms, if it’s just helping them go to a $7.25-an-hour job, that’s only part of what a single mom needs. And so, in 2020, the Kellogg Foundation awarded us a large grant to launch the Employment Equity for Single Moms program. We spent a year exploring with workforce partners and the State Department of Human Services what we could do to try to support single moms to move into higher paying jobs and what kind of a system we could work with our partners to set up.
We launched this program in partnership with all four of Mississippi’s local workforce development boards and we have a case manager in each one of our state’s four workforce districts. We have an extensive network of childcare center partners across the state that participate in the childcare assistance program. They have helped us reach out to recruit single moms. And the idea is that we will work with each single mom who contacts us to make sure she has childcare right away by helping her get onto the state child care assistance program, and in the process help her identify what occupations are in her part of the state that will pay higher wages. We’ll also try to identify education and training resources that the state’s workforce system offers to help if she needs to get some additional credential or some additional kind of education or training in order to compete for those jobs.
We started in the middle of the pandemic, which was a constraining factor of course. But nonetheless, we have been contacted by about a thousand single mom across the state of Mississippi who have wanted help with this. Our case managers work with each individual mom who reaches us to do a career action plan. We utilize a living wage calculator that was developed by MIT that goes down to the county level in states all over the country to calculate market rental, transportation, and educational costs. They calculate what the basic family needs would be based on family size and so we can use that to talk to moms about the hourly wage they need to earn in order to support the family that they have, whatever size that family might be. That’s how we identify what occupations and jobs would pay that wage so we can set goals for her to try to reach.
Sometimes those goals are out of reach in terms of the mom’s educational attainment, but we try to put a plan in place in order for us to help her get there. It’s been an incredibly helpful and valuable project since we started. When a mom comes to us and needs childcare, we will help her identify what childcare center she wants her children to go to. We require that the mom pick a center that’s already in the state’s Childcare Assistance program because while we will pay right away to get her kids into childcare, our immediate effort with her is to get her onto the state’s program because that’s going to be a much more long-term sustainable childcare support than we can afford.
And are you able to find childcare slots? In many states, it’s next to impossible
We are able to find slots. The pandemic had a really difficult impact on childcare centers, but there weren’t a significant percentage of the centers that permanently closed. Many of the centers we’re working with are under-enrolled by 30% because parents are waiting to get onto the state’s Child Assistance Program so they can afford to pay the fee.
I know there have been a lot of advocacy efforts in Mississippi around equal pay legislation and Medicaid expansion. Are you active in those efforts?
We definitely support those efforts, and our partners are working on them, but I am not holding my breath as our entire state leadership right now are united in their opposition. We’re trying to use this project, at least in the near future, as a way of being realistic and practical about what is possible for moms. We certainly don’t want to stand up a parallel direct service system. What we want to do is use this several-year grant opportunity as a chance to provide a model to our state’s workforce and childcare systems to say to them, here is what you can do with the resources you currently have to improve outcomes for a single mom-headed families. And single mom-headed families in Mississippi are the poorest families. Single moms work as much or more than any other demographic in Mississippi. It’s just that women are stuck in low paying jobs.
In our state, workforce initiatives operate in one part of the government and childcare assistance operates somewhere else. All it would take is for them to recognize that there is some advantage to alignment of those resources. And this is not just a Mississippi issue. In the Moore Community House program that we also operate, and which also has a Kellogg grant, we operate a women in construction job training program that gets women into advanced manufacturing and construction jobs. We also have Department of Labor funding and because of that, I participate in some Department of Labor events and conversations. And nationally, there is the recognition of the need for some kind of alignment between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Childcare and the U.S. Department of Labor.
Is the construction job project just on the coast, or statewide?
That’s just on the coast, here at Moore Community House in Biloxi, which is a local community center that responds to the needs of low-income women and young children.
And how long is the larger grant for the childcare program?
It goes through the early part of 2024.
I also have to ask you about this ongoing scandal in the state involving Brett Favre and the TANF program. Do you have hopes that this at least results in some changes in keeping better track of where the money goes, if not making the system easier for residents to use?
To be very honest, no, I don’t have any hope. That is the short answer. The longer answer, and the reason I was hesitant, is because there are a lot of things to say about that. We have a very committed and passionate minority of legislators. The Democratic caucus held a hearing on TANF recently and I gave testimony, and we provided a report on TANF. I have watched TANF be misused or not used at all or redirected to well-connected beneficiaries ever since it started. It’s a block grant that gives states a lot of flexibility in how they use the program. Mississippi has a history of thwarting any federal funding that comes to the state that’s intended to serve poor people because of a persistent undercurrent of racism that influences ideology around public assistance for the poor. We’ve never used federal welfare funding to eliminate poverty or for programs that would really move people from welfare to work, which was the stated purpose of TANF and so this isn’t the first time that we’ve watched state officials do something with TANF money that I would say isn’t the right thing to do with it.
With the decision makers that we have right now, they’re feeling like they have to give the appearance of cracking down on fraud and righting the ship just in terms of compliance. But there’s no real requirement on states to do anything at all to reduce poverty or to invest in programs that have a history of making a real positive difference in the lives of good people. As long as they can outlast the public light that is shining on this, they’re going to go back to what they’ve always done. I wish that wasn’t the case and I will work to try to make it better, but given who the decision makers are, again, I don’t see that being really different anytime soon.