The looming childcare “crisis,” public benefits and their impact on the foster care system

Over half of all Black children experience a CPS investigation, “a normative experience in the lives of Black children”

By: - August 17, 2023 11:55 am

Panelists (left to right) Beth Messersmith, from MomsRising, Madhu Vulimiri and Carla West from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services discuss the ways economic supports can help children across North Carolina. Photo: Kelan Lyons

Beth Messersmith can see the crisis coming. Come December, the federal funds for childcare will run dry. Unless state lawmakers allocate $300 million to cover the cost for the next two years, working families will suffer — which means so will North Carolina’s economy.

“The childcare workforce is the workforce behind the workforce,” said Messersmith, the campaign director for MomsRising‘s North Carolina chapter. “Parents can’t afford to go to work — they can’t go to work — if they don’t have safe, affordable, high-quality childcare for their children.”

Messersmith made the dire prediction at a symposium on Tuesday titled “Economic Supports: a path to reduce childhood adversity,” hosted by the North Carolina Institute of Medicine. She and other panelists discussed the ways economic supports benefit families and can prevent child maltreatment.

Those supports include childcare, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (known as TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP or food stamps.

A threadbare and inadequate safety net

Carla West, the senior director of economic security in the Division of Social Services within DHHS, connected TANF in North Carolina to Messersmith’s point about childcare. To receive TANF in North Carolina, West said, you have to work.

“If you don’t have childcare, you can’t work,” West said, which means families lose access to the few hundred dollars they would otherwise get each month, “which may be the difference between keeping your house or being able to put food on the table.”

There are about 11,000 families across North Carolina who receive TANF money.

“There’s way more people living in poverty than 11,000 households in North Carolina,” West said.

It’s not just about the money, West said. Also important are the “wraparound services” like education and employment support, aid that can go a long way toward helping struggling families. West said her colleagues are looking into how to modernize their services so families are supported in a holistic way, which West said can “disrupt poverty and help our children succeed.”

Public benefits were repeatedly referenced as essential in efforts to reduce poverty. But so was federal money that was about to expire.

North Carolina took advantage of an influx in federal funding for food stamp benefits during the pandemic so that people on SNAP received more money each month, said Madhu Vulimiri, the deputy director of the Division of Child and Family Well-being at DHHS.

“We heard from families who said, ‘For the first time that I’ve ever received my FNS (SNAP) benefits, I feel like I can actually afford groceries,'” Vulimiri said.

But those emergency allotments are winding down because of the end of the federal COVID-19 public health emergency earlier this year.

“Even with the public health emergency ending, we’re trying to see where we can extend some of those policies,” Vulimiri said. “That increase in benefits is largely a federal decision, or a state decision to the extent that the state legislature is willing to invest in some of those additional benefits.”

Lawmakers have yet to pass a budget this session.

About 11% of North Carolinians experience “food insecurity,” defined as lacking consistent access to enough food for members of a household to live a healthy life. That means 1.2 million people — about 400,000 of whom are children — don’t know where their next meal is coming from, said Vulimiri.

The foster care connection

Vulimiri referenced a study that found an inverse relationship between SNAP benefits and Child Protective Services and foster care caseloads: states that increased access to SNAP saw a reduction in CPS investigations in foster care cases resulting from child maltreatment, specifically cases involving neglect. She said that research “is so powerful and reminds us of the importance of SNAP and WIC [the Special Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants and Children.]”

Foster care was the subject of the keynote speech that preceded Messersmith, West and Vulimiri’s panel. Clare Anderson, senior policy fellow at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, presented research showing that states like North Carolina that strip people’s TANF benefits for not meeting work requirements experience a 23% increase in substantial child neglect reports and a nearly 13% increase in foster care entries.

“It’s important to understand that the first statutory goal of TANF is to support needy families so that children can be cared for in their own homes or with relatives,” Anderson said. “So, decision-making in TANF seems to have an effect on what happens in child welfare.”

Anderson presented research suggesting that the more money families receive, the fewer kids wind up in foster care. States that have a refundable Earned Income Tax Credit, which North Carolina briefly had from 2007 to 2014, see an 11% decrease in foster care entries.

Wages can also impact child welfare, Anderson said. For every $1 increase in the minimum wage, there’s a nearly 10% decrease in child neglect cases.

“There are a number of studies that help us understand that risk of child welfare system involvement goes up when there is decreased access to economic and concrete supports,” Anderson said. “And we see that across a number of policy areas: childcare, housing, TANF, employment, even increased gas prices have decreased discretionary money in the pockets of families.”

Black families disproportionately impacted

Put another way, it’s not uncommon for families without access to public benefits to wind up the subject of a Child Protective Services investigation. Those families, Anderson said, are disproportionately Black. Over half of all Black children experience a CPS investigation.

Clare Anderson presents data showing how common Child Protective Services investigations are for Black families.

“It has become a normative experience in the lives of Black children,” said Anderson.

Anderson said using CPS to respond to child maltreatment, particularly for Black families, says a lot about “where and how we point our more intrusive and punitive policies, as opposed to pointing our more resourceful policies.”

But, Anderson said, these are decisions made by governments and voters about how to respond to struggling families who lack access to critical resources that can help them climb out of poverty and keep their children safe.

“I think I think we assume that neglect is a family-level problem,” she said. “These are, in part, policy choices that we are making.”

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Kelan Lyons
Kelan Lyons

Investigative Reporter Kelan Lyons writes about criminal and civil justice, including high-profile litigation, prison and jail conditions, housing, and the challenges people face when they leave prison.