From special reports



JACKSON — Despite recent U.S. Census Bureau data showing nationwide reductions in the poverty rate and increases in household median income, 22 percent of Mississippi's residents remain mired in poverty and nearly 638,000 of the state's residents still face double jeopardy in today's economy. They live below the poverty line, and they face high costs in areas such as rent, food, child care and predatory lending.

That's the finding of The High Cost of Being Poor in Mississippi, a new report released last month by the Children's Defense Fund - Southern Regional Office, the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative and the Coalition on Human Needs. Among the report's highlights:

— 47 percent of Mississippi's households with annual incomes below $20,000 spend more than half of their income on rent alone.

— Child care accounts for another exorbitant expense. The average cost in Mississippi for an infant in a child care center is more than $4,800 a year; for an infant and a four-year-old, it's more than $8,800. A family at the poverty line with an infant and toddler in child care would have to spend 36 percent of its income on child care, if paying the state average cost. Without a subsidy, low-income families have no choice but to make cheaper and often less reliable arrangements.

— Anti-poverty programs help many. Programs such as low-income refundable tax credits, SNAP, free or reduced-price school lunch and child care subsidies have helped lift tens of millions of Americans out of poverty, including more than a quarter of a million Mississippi residents.

But many anti-poverty programs don't reach many who are eligible and other programs would do more good if their benefits were higher or if more people were eligible.

— Mississippi anti-poverty advocates were particularly critical of the failure of programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which has suffered due to block-grant funding by Congress. They note that although Mississippi has the nation's highest poverty rate, only 8 in 100 Mississippians living below the poverty line actually receive assistance through TANF. And even as Mississippi remains stuck in poverty, reports show that in 2015 alone, Mississippi refused to draw down $35 million of the $86 million TANF block grant funding available that year.

— Furthermore, they say, Mississippi's refusal to use all available TANF dollars has repercussions that keep many families in poverty. For example, they note that limited access to affordable child care is one of the largest barriers to full-time unemployment - other states use TANF dollars to help mothers and fathers provide their children with safe child care when they are at work. In Mississippi, 111,860 children are eligible for child care assistance, but only 19,739 children receive it under the state's anti-poverty programs.

"This report highlights the need for an expansion in Mississippi's child care funding because low-income parents can't work and pull themselves out of poverty without access to reliable and consistent assistance," said Carol Burnett, Executive Director of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative. "Unfortunately, the federally funded Child Care and Development Fund, which helps to provide vouchers to low-income working parents, is so inadequately funded that vouchers only reach 14% of working families who qualify."

— Mississippi anti-poverty advocates were particularly critical of the failure of programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which has suffered due to block-grant funding by Congress. They note that although Mississippi has the nation's highest poverty rate, only 8 in 100 Mississippians living below the poverty line actually receive assistance through TANF. And even as Mississippi remains stuck in poverty, reports show that in 2015 alone, Mississippi refused to draw down $35 million of the $86 million TANF block grant funding available that year.

— Furthermore, they say, Mississippi's refusal to use all available TANF dollars has repercussions that keep many families in poverty. For example, they note that limited access to affordable child care is one of the largest barriers to full-time unemployment - other states use TANF dollars to help mothers and fathers provide their children with safe child care when they are at work. In Mississippi, 111,860 children are eligible for child care assistance, but only 19,739 children receive it under the state's anti-poverty programs.

— The High Cost of Being Poor in Mississippi found many ways in which it is expensive to be poor: Rents consuming huge proportions of income, higher food prices because of lack of access to markets, late fees for unpaid rent and evictions, poor housing conditions leading to health issues, which in turn lead to missed days of school or work; lack of paid sick days, paid leave, and unpredictable work schedules; and predatory lending practices such as payday lending.

"It is good news that across the country, poverty has declined, median household income is up, and more Americans are finally benefitting from an improved economy, coupled with federal programs that increase income or reduce expenses," said Deborah Weinstein, Executive Director of the Coalition on Human Needs. "But the more troubling news is that the poverty rate essentially remains stuck in Mississippi and the poor and near-poor live in a precarious situation. The simple fact is, it is expensive to be poor in Mississippi."

— The report includes recommendations for reducing poverty further for the 638,000 adults and children who live at or below the poverty line in Mississippi. These recommendations include increasing federal funding for housing and child care subsidies; expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit; increasing SNAP benefits and improving  Child Nutrition programs while reauthorizing them; expanding health care coverage to low-income Americans by drawing down federal Medicaid dollars in the 19 states that have not done so;  a strong rule finalized from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to stop predatory lending; and raising the minimum wage and helping workers get more paid hours through paid sick leave and more predictable hours.

The High Cost of Being Poor in Mississippi is available at http://bit.ly/2epdLsp