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Special correspondent Cat Wise and producer Kate McMahon report from Mississippi, where many working parents struggled to find affordable, quality child care long before the pandemic. Among the most impacted: single mothers who are often stuck in low-paying jobs and can't always access government support. This is the second report in our series "Raising the Future: America’s child care dilemma."
Now to the second report in our week-long series on child care in the U.S.
Tonight, special correspondent Cat Wise and producer Kate McMahon report from Mississippi, where many working parents have struggled to find affordable, quality child care long before the pandemic.
Among those most impacted, single mothers, who often are stuck in low-paying jobs and have a difficult time accessing government support.
Our series is called Raising the Future: America's Child Care Dilemma.
Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the country, has the highest rate of child poverty and, like pretty much everywhere, child care is expensive.
There was a lot of times I would quit jobs or just stay at home because it was easier that way.
Ethel Williams is a 42-year-old single mother of five. She grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and worked for years in low-paying jobs. Like many parents who can't afford reliable child care, she had to come up with patchwork solutions, which included having her older kids watch their younger siblings.
I wanted to be able to work. I wanted a career. I wanted a place where my kids could grow and be kids, and not have to worry about the responsibility of taking care of the younger kids and having such a burden on them at a young age.
Ethel's story is not unique. Mississippi has the nation's highest rate of women as primary breadwinners for families. Most are in low-paying jobs living below the poverty line, with little to nothing left to pay for child care.
According to one study, a typical family in Mississippi with an infant and a 4-year-old has to spend about 20 percent their income on child care. But there are federal programs to help low-income parents, Head Start and child care subsidies in the form of vouchers.
And neither program is universal.
Carol Burnett is director of the nonprofit Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative.
We do a lot of work trying to help parents navigate the mine field of applying for a child care voucher. And it's not just the funding. It's the application process that's incredibly burdensome, the multiple obstacles that stand in the way.
Nationally, only one in seven children who are eligible for child care subsidies under federal rules actually receive them.
It is a critical part of our infrastructure.
Child care as a safety net program is just not working, according to U.C. Berkeley's Lea Austin. She's the director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.
There is not enough of those child care subsidies today to make sure everybody who needs it gets access to it. And so those — that just has a domino effect, right? If you can't — we know, if you can't access child care, the impact that has on your ability to work. You may not work at all. You may have to reduce your earnings.
Ethel Williams is one of those who had challenges with government child care assistance. She says the co-payments required of parents in Mississippi were manageable when she was making minimum wage, but when she began earning $3 more an hour, her subsidy decreased. And, at that point, child care was just too expensive.
I had to think, like, what do I do? Because I would be working to pay child care. And so I made a conscious decision to go back to working at McDonald's, because this is how the system was set up.
We're constantly looking at our processes. How can we make them better?
Chad Allgood is in charge of the state's child care assistance program at the Mississippi Department of Human Services.
We haven't had a waiting list in four years. But I don't think that we are serving all the children that need to be served. I think there are parents out there that don't know that the assistance exists.
And that's one of the things that we're looking at is, how do we — how do we market this program better?
He says tracking child care needs is difficult, but there may be as many as 170,000 children in the state living at or near the poverty level and potentially eligible for assistance. Currently, only 24,000 children are in the program.
But more families may soon get child care help, thanks to pandemic relief funds. Mississippi received about $520 million from the American Rescue Plan for child care; $319 million will go to providers. The state is still finalizing how to spend the rest.
But Allgood says, if the federal funding isn't permanent, providers may be hurt in the long run.
When we look at expanding our voucher, the vouchers that we offer, we just want to be very intentional that we do so in a way that our current child care providers are going to be able to meet the need without putting additional strain on them.
You don't want to build up all this capacity and then not be able to sustain it.
Carol Burnett sees things differently. She wants more funding to get to low-income parents as soon as possible.
There need to be more vouchers, and the vouchers need to be easier to get and keep. That is the story about child care in Mississippi.
She says the issues in her state are similar to questions being asked all around the country.
We're very conflicted about whether we really want moms to be able to get that child care and not stay home with their children like they're supposed to.
It's rooted in gender bias. It's also rooted in racism, because a lot of the assistance for poor families, and especially in my state here in Mississippi, the recipients of these vouchers are largely Black families. And the inequities that they face thwart their efforts every — at every turn.
Those inequities were a driving force behind a program Burnett created in Biloxi a decade ago, Women in Construction, which combines job training with free and easy to access child care.
The program has helped transform the lives of Ethel Williams and about 800 other single low-income mothers. After completing the program, Williams became the lead instructor. She now earns $20 an hour, plus benefits, teaching construction-related skills.
Following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the program was started to meet a large need for skilled construction workers. Hourly wages typically start around $15, nearly double the state's minimum wage.
Combining job training with child care, is that a powerful combination?
It is the magic road for economic security, because job training is super helpful, but if a mom doesn't have child care, she can't do it. Child care is super helpful, but if it's only to allow her to go to a $7.25-an-hour job, it's not all she needs.
Twenty-six-year-old Ayanna Ruffin recently enrolled in the program. She's a single mom with a 9-month-old son who says she has a hard time putting food on the table working as a hairstylist.
Ayanna Ruffin, Program Enrollee:
I can see the future in it.
How's the future look?
Man, I'm loving the future. I'm stepping out now, so I can get into a new field and be able to be a provider for my son, And not have to depend on nobody else to take care of him.
Ethel Williams is now living the future she saw. And she's started taking her family on out-of-state vacations, something she says she never had the money to do before.
I feel like I have all the tools after coming through the program to get anything, to accomplish anything.
She's now passing along those tools and some inspiration to the mothers coming along behind her.
For the "PBS NewsHour, " I'm Cat Wise in Mississippi.
And join us tomorrow night, as our series travels to Nebraska, where a lack of affordable child care highlights how rural parts of the country face a dilemma similar in many ways to those in major cities too.
And you can watch last night's story and all of our coverage in this series on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.
Watch the Full Episode
Senior Producer, Field Segments
Kate McMahon is an award-winning producer, writer and director of documentary films, news, podcasts, print and digital stories who has received several awards and nominations for her work. Kate has contributed to more than 50 hours of national documentary and long-format news programming, primarily for PBS, since she began her career in 1998 as an Associate Producer for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Kate's recent work includes the ITVS short film The D.A's Dilemma (PBS, February 2021), a 4-part documentary series about behavioral science, Hacking Your Mind (PBS, September 2020); FRONTLINE: Coronavirus Pandemic (PBS, April, 2020) and three PBS NewsHour segments on the Oregon wildfires. She directs and co-produces documentaries for the PBS series FRONTLINE; independent films, digital channels and PBS stations. Outside of producing documentaries, Kate has produced and reported public radio programs for REVEAL, and written articles in Salem Reporter and Metro Parent Magazine.
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