Fighting the Long Fight: A Q&A With Mississippi Child-Care Advocate Carol Burnett

At the root of the child-care crisis is something obvious: Employers aren't paying parents living wages.

In Mississippi, only about 10 percent of minors eligible for child-care support are getting it. John Moore/Getty Images

So far, 2017 has not been kind to women. And it has been particularly cruel to women of color. They are at greatest threat from the dangerous rhetoric and spiteful policies of President Donald Trump and the GOP, but they also have much to lose in progressives’ misguided battles about whether the path to future victories is paved with a focus on “identity politics” or class.

Since the founding of the United States, the “rules” of our economy and society have threatened the health, safety, and economic security of women of color. From channeling them into low-wage work and making them targets of predatory lending to depriving them of access to comprehensive and quality health care, this country’s rules—the policies, institutions, and common practices that undergird our economy and society—fuel glaring disparities and inequities. When compared with white women, women of color face higher levels of poverty and unemployment, and they experience significant gaps in wages and wealth. They are more likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system and to shoulder the burden of caring for their families and communities when men of color are disproportionately targeted by that system. Across all levels of income and education, they are at much higher risk than white women of dying from pregnancy-related causes and having their children die in infancy.

As I recently wrote in “Justice Doesn’t Trickle Down: How Racialized and Gendered Rules are Holding Women Back“—a report published by the Roosevelt Institute, where I am a fellow, and the Ms. Foundation for Women—more equitable economic policies are certainly critical for improving the lives of women and families nationwide. However, for women of color, social justice will not be an inevitable byproduct of economic progress, given the racism and sexism baked into our social and economic systems.

For “Justice Doesn’t Trickle Down,” I interviewed Carol Burnett, executive director of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative (MLICCI), which is working to make affordable child care a reality for women and families.

Burnett shared her thoughts on the compounding problems that result from a lack of affordable child care, on why reproductive health is an economic issue, and on her own path to fighting for social justice in red-state Mississippi. Burnett’s experiences and the work of MLICCI illustrates how fighting for progressive economic policies is critical to advancing women’s wellbeing. But that progress will be incomplete if we do not also fight to rewrite the rules that have long endangered the health and safety of women and their families.

Rewire: What are the biggest obstacles facing the women and families you work with?

Carol Burnett, founder and executive director of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative.

Carol Burnett: The women MLICCI advocates for have jobs that pay very low wages, have very little flexibility, no paid family leave and no paid sick leave, and rarely have health benefits. Their wages simply aren’t enough to provide for a family’s economic security. They can’t afford child care unless they get a subsidy from the state, and only [around] 10 percent of the children who qualify actually receive it.

But for the few women who do get the subsidy, it can reduce the cost of child care by as much as 80 percent, allowing families to secure quality services so they can go to work. It leaves them much better off economically. For those who can’t get the subsidy—and that’s the large percentage of parents who need it—they either decide the cost of child care isn’t worth working or they try to find child care that is affordable. Those affordable options often aren’t licensed. Sometimes they are terrific, and sometimes they aren’t. They can easily fall apart if the caregiver has a conflict or gets sick, and that can jeopardize the parent’s job. There is no flexibility from these employers who are unforgiving.

Rewire: President Trump’s recent child-care proposal has been met with resistance from many women’s organizations. Would his plan help the women you work with? What should a federal child-care plan look like?

CB: From the few details we know, it appears that President Trump’s plan would provide a tax benefit that would help high-income families a great deal and low-income families very little.

Not only is the tax credit unlikely to be substantial enough to finance child care, it won’t provide immediate relief to families in need. It’s very unlikely that a low-income parent would be able to hold onto a one-time payment to use over the course of the year. It’s not that these families aren’t good at financial management. It’s that they don’t have enough money and if an emergency comes up—the car needs to be fixed, the rent needs to be paid, a child gets sick—they will use whatever resources they can to take care of it.

What we need is a child-care plan that is going to give families access to quality and affordable care. It’s rare that parents get both of these things, and that is really unacceptable. In addition, parents need the reliability of full-time, full-year care.

You know, this is a hard question to answer because in many ways it’s about accommodating employers who don’t pay enough. What’s at the heart of this issue is that parents don’t earn livable wages for the work they do.

Families in the Mississippi child-care system are predominantly led by single mothers who are the only wage earner in the family. Too often they make minimum wage or slightly above. A full-time minimum wage job leaves a family of two below the federal poverty level. Full-time work! We can’t ignore the fact that women are clustered in low-wage work and that there is tremendous gender inequity in workplaces.

Rewire: In “Justice Doesn’t Trickle Down,” we illustrate how women of color face constricted opportunities as a result of the nation’s long history of racism and sexism. How do you see the legacy of these racial and gender rules shaping opportunities and outcomes for families in Mississippi today?

CB: We see the detrimental intersections of racism and sexism at work every day. When talking about women of color, gender inequity combines with racial inequity. Black women’s earnings are lower. More than 70 percent of children living in poverty in Mississippi live with a single parent. When [we] combine the impact of race and gender on a family headed by a Black single mom, those inequities make her outcomes significantly worse.

Rewire: For decades, policymakers have relied on false narratives about poor women and women of color to justify punitive reforms and funding cuts to public programs. How does this affect the work you do and the families you work with?

CB: There is a combination of opinions, values, and prejudices that influence the ideology of some policymakers who choose not to prioritize certain programs or actively keep them from being adequately funded or strengthened. This is rooted in a toxic combination of racism and sexism. Some policymakers think it’s not the government’s role to make child care accessible, that women should be home taking care of their children, and that subsidizing child care will undermine the family.

I would be surprised if any of those policymakers could actually tell you what welfare looks like, who needs it, and who receives it. They probably don’t [know] that you can’t get cash assistance for more than 60 months of your whole life; that recipients are required to work; and that as soon as you start making an income, the benefits stop. They probably don’t know that the benefit is less than $150 a month for a mom and child in Mississippi. These details are rarely really understood. To the Paul Ryans of the world, offering assistance to poor people encourages them to rely on government and provides a disincentive from working and achieving economic independence.

This is completely contrary to my many years of experience working with women who are on welfare. They have incredible work ethic. They work many jobs at one time, none of which pay adequately. Low-wage work is incredibly insecure. You might have a job this week and not next week. Cycling on and off welfare something that happens as a result of that. The idea that this group of people is lazy or unwilling to work or needs to be treated in a punitive way to get them to behave a certain way—that’s rooted in antipathy based on attitudes about race and gender.

Affordable, reliable child care is proven to be a good investment from any direction you look at it: from investment in parents’ ability to go to work, from the employers’ ability to have employees who won’t be absent, from the state looking to increase labor force participation rate and its tax revenue. There’s no way you can look at child care that leads you to conclusion that it’s not a good investment. Then why is there such hostility to this? The only explanation to that is a toxic mix of attitudes toward race, gender, and poverty.

Rewire: In the report, we argue that focusing on class issues alone will not be the rising tide that lifts all boats. What other issues are critical to the families you work with?

CB: Access to reproductive health care is critical. A woman’s ability to decide when and if she wants a child is so important to her own economic wellbeing. And having adequate income is inextricably linked to her safety from domestic violence. The ability to get into a well-paying job is key to allowing women to move away from abuser to safety.

Rewire: You’ve been doing this work for a long time. How did you get here?

CB: [Laughs] First, I lived in the Mississippi Delta as a second grader when the schools were in the process of being forced to implement racial integration. My parents supported racial integration of public schools. The church where my dad was a minister was quite divided on the issue, with some members wanting to house the segregation academy in the church when no other facility could be found on short notice. My parents were not political; it was for them a result of their belief that one’s actions should be consistent and reflect what one believes. If you believe God created people equally, then your actions should reflect your belief.

Secondly, I am an ordained United Methodist minister and was one of the first women in Mississippi to be ordained. When I went to seminary, there were a lot of opportunities to learn about liberation and feminist theology, and to approach issues from a justice perspective. That’s where my values were formed. But my personal experiences of sexism and the hostility of the church to women clergy made my seven-year battle to get ordained more a fight I wanted to win than something that still held meaning by the time it was finally achieved. As my feminism and feminist understandings grew, my connection to religion diminished.

I ended up working as labor organizer with textile workers in South Carolina, with women in domestic violence situations, and with low-income women trying to afford child care. I’ve worked to move forward a feminist agenda and a policy agenda that will provide economic security for low-income women. It’s been the experiences of women most impacted by injustice that have informed me about the failures of our current system and the solutions we need. Religion put me on this pathway, but what’s kept me here is the connection to the women who are so devoted to their kids, who are so tenacious about trying to make a way out of no way on behalf of themselves and their families. It’s incumbent upon us to remove the obstacles the system continues to put in their path.

Rewire: What are your thoughts on the role of white women in racial and gender justice work, particularly in the wake of an election when more than half of white women voted for a candidate who explicitly perpetuated misogyny?

CB: In the fall, shortly after the election, MLICCI had our second economic security summit. Dr. Safiya Omari from Jackson State University, a historically Black institution, opened by talking about the intersectionality of race and gender, and how important it is for us, especially in a place like Mississippi, to keep ourselves rooted at that intersection. She challenged everybody in the room, but especially progressive white women to find ways to work with other white women who voted for Trump, to try to do something about changing the attitudes and values of those women. That’s an important challenge for those of us who are white progressive women.

Rewire: We are now seeing on a national level what you have long been dealing with on a state level. What advice would you give to advocates who are fighting back against injustice and inequality?

CB: We need tenacity and to be able to find ways to push progress incrementally. We must stay really connected to the people who are impacted by how the system needs to change. Their experiences provide a sense of how urgent and important this is, and are strong enough to overcome the disheartening experience of losing in this hostile environment.

I do get a lot of nurturance of my soul from being part of a strong impactful resistance. But there’s not a lot of that here in Mississippi. There is a small advocacy community here, and we work really closely together. I’m a realist. At a state level, we have a supermajority of Republicans, and now we have that at the federal level too. The resistance is reminding us that this majority of Republicans in office doesn’t represent everybody in this country. But it’s really hard to think about what can happen to make it different other than trying to find a way to get people to vote differently.

Rewire: How can women outside of the South be supportive of your work?

CB: This work is not just limited to the South now. Women across the country need to be doing something to support this agenda wherever they live. It’s under attack in every state—not just in Mississippi.

This phone interview has been edited for clarity and length.