- Associated Press - Friday, January 6, 2017

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The Mississippi Department of Human Services says it has increased by 50 percent the share of federal welfare money used to subsidize child care for low-income families.

But because officials are also planning to increase rates the department pays to child care centers, that could mean that fewer - not more- children get help.

Human Services Deputy Administrator Jacob Black confirmed the changes to The Associated Press on Thursday. He made the comments hours after the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative held a rally at the state Capitol demanding the department spend more on the program.

Mississippi gets $86 million in federal welfare money in a Temporary Assistance to Needy Families block grant. The state can transfer up to 30 percent of that to subsidize child care for poor parents, with the aim of enabling parents to work or earn a degree.

Last year, Black said Mississippi only transferred 20 percent of the money, or $17.2 million, to child care. But in October, at the start of the current federal budget year, Black said the state decided to maximize the transfer, designating $25.8 million for child care.

The program subsidizes care for about 17,500 children. Roughly another 14,000 are on a waiting list because of lack of money. Human Services officials say an unknown number of waiting list names are duplicated.

More money is exactly what advocates want, in hopes of cutting the waiting list. But Black said Mississippi could as much as double rates after the federal government required a payment study. Child care providers have complained for years that the federally-financed vouchers don’t pay enough to cover their costs, requiring them to effectively subsidize the care of voucher students with money from parents paying market rates.

Black said new federal rules also require Mississippi to spend more money on regulation. For example, the state must now inspect unlicensed child-care homes that have received vouchers. Black said Human Services has doubled the amount of money it pays the Department of Health from $1 million to $2 million to cover those costs.

All that means the state could spend more and still cover fewer kids.

“We hope that we don’t lose vouchers, but it is a consideration,” Black said.

Citing federal records, the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative said Mississippi has unused welfare grant money from previous years. Black said that’s incorrect. He said that services provided by contractors are typically paid for after they are delivered, so the department reserves money to make those payments. Money may show up on federal forms as unspent, but he said all money is committed.

“There is no unobligated amount of TANF funds from ‘16 and previous,” he said.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/JeffAmy .

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