THE BLOG
08/04/2014 05:05 pm ET Updated Oct 04, 2014

Mississippi Doesn't Have to Remain a National Punch Line

On July 22, Mississippi found itself ranked last in the nation in yet another national report when the Annie E. Casey Foundation released its annual KIDS COUNT survey, which ranks how all 50 states measure on child well-being.

Our last place ranking on the KIDS COUNT list is no accident. Nor are our nationally low literacy, employment and high school graduation rates. Rather, they are the consistent result of a political mindset that insists upon punishment for people at the bottom of the economic ladder. If we want to make sure we're not still last in the nation for child well-being when our grandchildren are in charge, our leaders need to help struggling children and families achieve stability now, and that will require a deep, permanent break from the punitive approach to poverty that has held our state back for generations.

That Tuesday, the same day that the KIDS COUNT report was released, breaking news in Mississippi and nationally clearly illustrated the political forces that make our state such an inhospitable place to grow up. In Jackson, the state Department of Human Services held a hearing regarding Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits, the meager cash support Mississippi provides on a monthly basis to 16,000 children and 6,000 adults living in poverty. Like a handful of other states, Mississippi's legislature recently passed a law that requires an individual to pass a drug test in order to receive TANF benefits. Still, this did not go far enough for our leaders. The Department of Human Services proposed a regulation to extend that punishment to the entire family if one adult fails the test, potentially denying welfare benefits to children, who may go hungry as a result. At the hearing, the Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ) and others spoke out against punishing children for a parent's failings. Neither Kansas nor Georgia -- on whose laws ours was modeled -- took such a harsh step.

Later that same day, in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Court of Appeals struck down federal subsidies for insurance purchased on the federal health exchange. If that decision is upheld, it will have a disastrous impact in Mississippi, one of five states where healthcare premiums could nearly double without federal subsidies. This would mean low-income Mississippi children and families will have no other healthcare alternatives since our governor and other leaders have blocked both Medicaid expansion and the creation of state subsidies for coverage purchased on the federal exchange.

In Mississippi, where our state government has repeatedly neglected its responsibilities to our children, local organizations like mine, the Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ), are doing our best to the fill the gaps and improve youth outcomes. For example, we and other advocates for children have been fighting to help children overcome our state's dismal education system. In 1997, after the Mississippi Legislature passed the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), the law required full funding of public K-12 schools in Mississippi. But the state legislature has followed this law only three times. While well-off school districts can make up the difference through local property taxes, children in the Mississippi Delta and other high-poverty parts of the state end up stuck in underfunded and under-resourced schools. There is a growing movement to address this disparity, with concerned citizens and leaders recently coming together to launch a statewide petition to put adequate funding on the ballot as a constitutional amendment.

And taking action to address this disparity is essential. Lack of school resources combine with poor households and communities to leave disadvantaged students standing in the gap alone. Punitive disciplinary rules often lead to the students getting suspended, sending them out of the schools and into homes unattended, often forever derailing their school career.

Just as often these rules send students into the youth court system, where a kid without guidance can become a young man or young woman with a record. At MCJ, we use our Youth In Transition program to offer another option -- mentoring kids who need it most. Keeping them out of the jail cell and helping them stay committed to their education.

When we look to other states, we can also see examples of how state governments can be advocates for improving the lives of children. In Illinois, advocates fought for a state earned income tax credit, one of the most cost effective ways to reduce child poverty. In New Jersey, the push was for high quality state funded pre-school programs, and children who attended these programs were on average a year ahead of those who did not. In Arkansas, several reforms in health care coverage helped to produce the largest decline in uninsured children of all the states since 1990. And in California, a family planning program targeting low-income men, women, and teens produced the nation's largest drop in the teen birth rate.

Mississippi doesn't have to remain a punch line. Many of us are fighting tooth and nail for the future of our children, but it's an uphill battle against a legacy of inequality and state policies that too often harm our children. If our state leaders want to make sure we don't remain last in the nation for the future we provide kids, we all need to get on board and change direction.