Mississippi removes hurdle to child care for low-income single parents

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Single parents in Mississippi — one of the poorest states in the nation — no longer face a nearly 20-year-old state policy that made it difficult for them to get financial help paying for child care, officials and advocates said Monday.

Since 2004, single parents and guardians in Mississippi had to seek child support from the other parent in order to be eligible for assistance through the Child Care Payment Program, which offers help to low-income parents. As of Monday, that rule is no longer in effect.

To comply with the rule and receive child care assistance, single parents had to apply through two divisions in the Mississippi Department of Human Services. The dual application process was mired in communication breakdowns that jeopardized assistance, said Carol Burnett, executive director of the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative.

“This policy deterred many single moms from applying for many valid reasons, ranging from informal payment agreements being jeopardized by court interference to avoiding abusive interactions,” Burnett said. Removing that hurdle is “a huge benefit for single moms, for their children, for providers and employers, and for all of us.”

After the policy went into effect in 2004, the wait list for assistance fell from 10,000 to about 208, Burnett said.

Jamese Wiley, a 28-year-old single mother of six who works as a cashier, said taking the steps required to comply with the rule forced her to wait six weeks before she could receive assistance. During that period, she had to pay for child care entirely out-of-pocket.

"When you’re only making about $1,600 per month, $500 out of your check is a pretty significant chunk of money," Wiley said. “Requiring parents and single mothers to comply with child support (enforcement) in order to qualify for assistance is forcing our hand instead of supporting our needs.”

Advocates sought the rule change for years. Chad Allgood, director of the department's Division of Early Childhood Care Development, said the change happened after a shift in thinking within the agency.

“The key is just having people in policymaking positions that are willing to listen and they’re willing to look at what good data has said," Allgood said at a news conference Monday. "Looking at the data, listening to those who are served by this program, we determined the policy wasn't really doing anything other than hurting mothers and their children.”

The change was also set in motion after a council of early childhood administrators voted in March 2022 to recommend that the Department of Human Services do away with the rule.

Allgood said the move would help address an ongoing labor shortage for employers in the state, as a lack of child care remains a barrier for parents entering the workforce.

“Parents cannot maintain consistent employment without access to stable, quality child care, and that's a point that I simply cannot emphasize enough,” Allgood said.

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Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mikergoldberg.