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You're Not Entitled! | The Nation

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You're Not Entitled!

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Mississippi Burnout

About the Author

Karen Houppert
Karen Houppert is a Baltimore-based freelance journalist. Her book on indigent defense will be published by the New...

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Seven years after Katrina, poor people accused of crimes are being denied their right to counsel and left to languish behind bars.

Blatant lawbreaking isn't the only problem. Many states, like Mississippi, are as stingy as possible in their interpretation of the law. Indeed, Mississippi is a good case study of what welfare could look like nationwide when the economy takes a plunge--or how a state's poor can rise or fall at the discretion of local leaders, like notorious antiwelfare Governor Kirk Fordice, whose "internal moral compass" told him to veto 106 of Mississippi's "liberal" legislature's bills during his tenure. ("I just might veto them all, Xerox the durn veto message or whatever," he once threatened, already having gone well beyond the fifty-three bills the two previous governors vetoed during their eight years in office.) With an unemployment rate of more than 13 percent in several counties, jobs are hard to come by. But the welfare rolls are still dropping, in good part because the sanctions for missing appointments or declining work assignments are so harsh: Clients immediately lose their welfare as well as their family's food stamps and the adult's Medicaid.

How are Mississippi families faring? In the eleven-county area of the Delta, the poverty rate hovers at 41 percent, and across the state 32 percent of children live in poverty. A study of eight Mississippi counties showed that only 35 percent of welfare recipients had jobs when they left or were kicked off the welfare rolls. Meanwhile, the state has chosen not to spend millions of federal welfare dollars that could be used for programs assisting the working poor. Mississippi has failed, for instance, to invest available funds in childcare. Although childcare is not an entitlement program like Medicaid and food stamps, it is considered such an integral part of welfare reform's success that Congress included an additional $4.5 billion for childcare--to be spread over five years--in the bill. The welfare law also links cash assistance and childcare by allowing states to move surplus welfare money into childcare programs.

But according to a 1998 report put out by two regional nonprofits, the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative and Congregations for Children, 90 percent of the Mississippi children eligible for childcare vouchers do not receive them. And with the average cost of childcare for a 4-year-old exceeding that of state college tuition, it's likely that most single parents working full time to bring in $10,712 could use the help. (Otherwise, childcare expenses for two kids consume 61 percent of their total income.) Meanwhile, approximately $25 million in federal childcare money and $17 million in unspent welfare money is sitting in state coffers.

"The state is claiming that the $25 million isn't being spent because it's not needed," says Carol Burnett, director of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative and one of the authors of the report. "But they're not really telling people that the money is available." While the state's Department of Human Services contends that it advertises, Burnett is skeptical. "I don't know where it's publicized," she says. "Supposedly there have been ads in newspapers and on TV and the radio, but I've never seen them give a list of media announcements, and I haven't ever seen or heard a single one--and I would notice, because I work in this field."

Furthermore, Burnett argues, even if the state's contention that 90 percent of eligible recipients are forgoing childcare assistance because they don't need it is true, the state could still use the money to improve existing childcare. For example, the state could spend some of the money to reduce the child-teacher ratios; it currently allows one of the highest ratios in the country, with one caregiver allowed to tend fourteen 3-year-olds. It could increase the amount of the childcare voucher that parents turn over to providers (currently $70-$80 a week for a toddler), so that childcare workers--whose average wages are lower than garbage collectors, bus drivers and bartenders--could get a well-deserved raise. It could increase education and training opportunities and requirements in a state where hairdressers have 1,500 hours of mandated training, while childcare teachers have fifteen (in-home providers aren't required to have any training, even in infant CPR).

But Mississippi's Department of Human Services insists it has done plenty, dismissing the report as "a monologue on Ain't It Awful" put out by the "Ain't It Awful Crowd." Ronnie McGinnis, director of the state's Office for Children and Youth, tries to put a positive spin on the report's revelation that 90 percent of eligible families aren't being served. "The truth is...the percentage of subsidized parents being served has increased from 5 percent to 10 percent...assuming that 100 percent of the eligible population would seek such care." She also points out that the department has introduced a credentialing program that will be a requirement for childcare center directors by the year 2000. "As center directors, you are business operators," she warned a group of daycare center directors. "If you are not carefully managing your center, you may be operating a charity." Although evidence across the country has indicated that it's nearly impossible to run a quality daycare center and make a handsome profit--or any profit at all--McGinnis insists that's what has to happen in Mississippi. "A childcare business is no different from any other," McGinnis says, explaining why the state has moved away from funding daycare centers in favor of vouchers for parents. While childcare advocates contend there is a paucity of centers in poor and rural areas, McGinnis says, "If there is a valid demand for licensed childcare, there will be someone out there who is prepared to open a business."

"Childcare is not an entitlement to parents or providers," McGinnis explains. "Parents seem to understand this."

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