a conversation with Oleta Fitzgerald on childhood poverty
The Children’s Defense Fund recently released nine policy changes that could help lift 5.5 million children across the country out of poverty. Locally, the Children’s Defense Fund of the Southern Region is led by Executive Director Oleta Fitzgerald. She recently spoke to Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about those policy recommendations, as well as childhood poverty in Mississippi. Fitzgerald is a graduate of The Piney Woods School and holds a bachelor’s degree from Tougaloo College and a master’s degree in rural development from Antioch University.
How many children in Mississippi live in poverty right now?
“The number is 189,541. For a percentage of children in the state, that’s 26.9 percent. That’s all children in Mississippi, all ethnicities, nationalities. In the black community, it can be one of every two children. In the press release we sent out, if you look in the rural areas of the state, versus areas where there has been some economic growth, the percentage is even higher. You have counties like Adams, where 56.9 percent of children are in poverty. In Claiborne County, 66.6 percent are in poverty. In Issaquena County, a small county, 69.6 percent of children are in poverty.”
Why is the rate so high, especially in those areas?
“Educational levels of parents, access to jobs in those areas. We talk about unemployment in Mississippi hovering around four percent. Based on some of the analysis we’ve worked on, unemployment in these counties (Adams, Issaquena, Claiborne) can be around 25 to 30 percent. Mississippi’s overall poverty rate dropped almost 10 percent between 2016 and 2017, but it has been an uneven drop, based on where you live and what kinds of jobs there are. And that’s from the U.S. Census Bureau and the 2016 American Community Survey, which is also from census bureau. Mississippi was one of 16 states that experienced a significant drop in poverty between 2016 and 2017.”
Why has poverty in the state dropped so much?
“I would say the growth in the economy has been one of the reasons. Also, we have programs that have helped move people out of poverty and keep them in the world of work, like childcare subsidies. When we talk poverty, we talk about a family of four making $25,000 a year gross. When you add in things like assistance with child care, assistance with the earned income tax credit (EITC), which helps low-income families with children, and healthcare coverage through Medicaid and children’s health insurance program (CHIP), people are able to stay in the world of work until they can inch their way up. Access to these resources significantly increases a family’s ability to move out of poverty.
“The earned income tax credit is one of the flagship programs that help families. That is why we would like to see that expanded. When we talk about tax policy, it’s always aimed at the people at the top. But the policies such as the earned-income tax credit and the refundable childcare tax credit that help lower and middle-income families bridge the gap.”
How much is EITC, and who is eligible for it?
“EITC is a federal tax credit that supplements the income of low to middle-income working people. Working families with children are eligible to receive EITC, provided that their annual income is below a certain threshold … about $40,000 and $55,000 a year depending on marital status and number of children.”
Let’s talk about national policy for a bit. What changes is the Children’s Defense Fund advocating, and how would they affect people in Mississippi?
“For the most part, most of the tax policy we’ve seen has not impacted the majority of families in Mississippi, because we don’t make that much money. Most of the tax policies at the state level have been (focused on) out-of-state companies. We are not investing in home-grown business. If we’re going to have this conversation about taxes, we need to make it about tax policy geared toward the middle class and not forget the people who are striving to become middle class, and many of those families live in Mississippi.”
But don’t these rebates to out-of-state companies help bring in jobs?
“One thing we don’t do well in Mississippi is see whether these businesses (that receive rebates) have created the jobs they said, at the salary level they said. It’s hard to get data. The indication is that the reinvestment does not happen. The job expansion does not happen. At the same time, we do know that if we had not done those tax breaks, we would have the money to fully fund education and do some of the things we’ve not been able to do. We’ve been cutting budgets, cutting budgets and cutting budgets.”
Going back to national policy for a moment, does the Trump tax bill need to be repealed?
“It would be a repealing of all the tax bill, but unwinding provisions of the tax bill. That is how you could find the resources to fund the nine policy improvements listed in our press release, including funding transitional jobs programs for the unemployed or under-employed, increasing the minimum wage, expanding the earned-income tax credit, making the child tax credit fully refundable and meeting children’s basic needs. We know that some of that is aspirational, but we also know that these things work. The way to pay for them is aspirational, but it shows that if we (repeal the tax bill) there is money to do this. It’s just how do we get to the $52 billion we need.”
So, it would take $52 billion to fund these programs?
“Yes; slightly more than one percent of the federal budget.”
What progress has Children’s Defense Fund made on doing these things?
“We’re are working hard and there are some bills that have been introduced. We’ll have a tough time moving some, but some we’ll be able to. The transitional employment and jobs piece – if we were able to get some of that into an infrastructure be, we could get jobs out of that. If we could get an expansion of the earned-income tax credit … there are instruments moving through Congress. As with anything else, we might not get all of it this year. That’s why I say it’s aspirational.”
What have been the Children’s Defense Fund’s successes in the past?
“The Children’s Defense Fund was integrally involved in the passage of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). People thought that was far-fetched. Now, between that and Medicaid, 95 percent of all children in the U.S. have access to healthcare.”
Tell me about the Children’s Defense Fund. Is it an advocacy group?
“Children’s Defense Fund is a 46-year-old advocacy organization. We’re based in Washington, D.C., and have offices in seven other states. We work, unlike many child advocacy/lobbying groups, on issues only related to children. We work on child welfare. We work on expanding access to early childhood education and Head Start, on public education issues and family income issues, which would take in programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and welfare assistance.
“We lobby at the state level and the federal level. We follow the implementation of federal policy though state administrative systems. With CHIP, we worked hard to get it passed in 1997. After it passed, it came down to implementing it at the state capitols, where legislators have to pass the implementing legislation. When we see problems at the bottom we feed them back up. No legislation is perfect and all have unintended consequences, so we have to follow it back up to see (bills) get fixed.”
Is the state falling short on implementing any federal policy?
“It’s according to who the governor is. If the governor is supportive of the policy, then access to the program becomes easier. If the governor is not, then access becomes more difficult.”
Since the poverty rate in Mississippi has gone down, the state has been pretty successful then.
“The state has been better about ensuring children have health insurance than other social policy programs.”
How many states does the Southern Region cover?
“ We do work in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana. We had an office in Louisiana after (Hurricane) Katrina, and still have some work we do in Louisiana. We (also) work with our partners in Florida and sometimes Arkansas.”