Rev. James White slowly stands to have his say amid the rising chorus of louder voices. "I'm a firm believer in nonviolence," he says. "We must do things decent and in order. We must organize and be united, then we'll get results."
The 50 or so day-care providers in the room nod in agreement. White is no stranger to civil disobedience; he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King and has long been involved in civil rights activities in the city. But the methods for provoking change have evolved on this night. Nerves are frayed. There are no plans for violence, but the time for quiet protest has passed. This is war for the day-care providers here. Unfortunately, the children and families they serve could end up being the POWs.
On this Monday in late September, the group is meeting to find a way to respond to transportation-subsidy changes enacted by the Tennessee Department of Human Services that begin October 1st. They've been meeting for weeks, discussing the proposed funding cuts and weighing the possible consequences. Most of the providers have faced similar situations before. Each time, they've juggled their budgets to continue service to their clients, most of whom receive some type of government assistance.
This time, the providers decide to protest the cuts with a transportation stoppage.
Beginning October 1st, many Memphis area day-care providers say they will halt bus service, then regroup after three days to measure the effects. Parents plan to concurrently protest at DHS offices in downtown Memphis. Lines have been drawn. There's no turning back.
"I've been in this business more than 30 years and this is not my first fight, but it is one of the most important," says protest leader and center operator Diane Manning. "I'm going to retire soon, but I've got one more fight left in me before then and I'll go to hell and back for these children and parents before I let [DHS] take it all away. If [providers] are not together with one voice now, the state is going to pick us off one by one in the future."
The wheels of conflict were set in motion almost two months ago, when DHS officials announced that budget shortfalls would end three assistance programs designed to help families with child-care costs: Day-care providers were informed that the state would no longer provide $2-a-day per child transportation subsidies, a $50 annual registration fee, or a $50 application fee.
DHS statistics show that the number of families participating in Tennessee's welfare-to-work program has risen 24 percent in three years, leading to a $46 million budget deficit and a $26 million Families First benefit gap. Part of the problem is a 34 percent increase in child-care subsidy expenses. Of the department's $244 million child-care budget for this fiscal year, $228 million will be spent on subsidies to day-care providers for Families First clients and those transitioning off the program. Of that amount, $19 million in subsidies are set aside for 6,500 children of low-income or working-poor families. An additional 22,000 children remain on a waiting list for these services.
With state poverty levels increasing, co-pay amounts for low-income and transitional families have also increased. "We've got families at our centers now who can't make co-payments, so how does DHS think these people can afford to pay their transportation costs too? It just doesn't make sense," Manning says. But DHS officials contend that the co-pay amounts have not been changed since the early 1990s and the increase is nominal.
Of the $6.4 million in transportation subsidies paid out since their inception in 1999, 85 percent have gone to Shelby County, which also leads the state in Families First cases and child-care subsidies.
"Shelby County is a tough area. There are more poor people here than anywhere else in the state, and these people need help," says state Representative Kathryn Bowers. She is one of a few state legislators attempting to resolve provider and parent issues with DHS. When the cuts were first announced, Bowers held a meeting in Memphis with DHS representatives to educate providers about the changes. Representative Henri Brooks, who also serves as chair of the Families First Advisory Committee, has initiated a plan to stem the inconveniences after the October cutoff date. Among local politicians, only county commissioner and city mayoral candidate John Willingham has attended any provider/parent meetings.
"The decision to cut transportation subsidies was specifically a budget-cutting action," says DHS deputy commissioner Ed Lake. "We were able to build the Families First program up from the mandated services by using savings when caseloads dropped, performance bonuses, and other one-time funding. But you can't operate a program with short-term funding, so you have to look at the ever-growing number of [services] and work your way back down to the higher-priority mandated services to get back within projected costs."
At one time, child-care wasn't affordable for Teresa Franklin. "At first I didn't understand really what all this was about," she says during a parent/provider meeting. "But I feel that the whole thing is unfair. [DHS] doesn't care what happens to our children. I know where a lot of the parents are coming from, because I've been there," she says, scanning the audience of angry parents. The 31-year-old mother of seven has four children in the Love and Happiness day-care center or using their transportation and after-school services. With the October 1st subsidy cut-off, Franklin will have to pay $8 a day in transportation fees for her children. "If the parents decide to march," she says, "I'll be right there marching."
While the $2-per-day per-child allocation may not seem like a large amount, to many parents even this small sum is a burden.
At 5 a.m., six buses leave from the central garage of Our Future Learning Center in North Memphis to pick up children throughout the city attending the center's three locations.
Driver Marvin Hathaway has been driving day-care buses for almost a year. Most of his young riders live more than five miles from the center, some even farther away. "I have the longest route and usually do two or three drop-offs each morning, not including the children we drop off at school," he says. He makes three trips each morning, totaling 90 to 100 miles. His first stop takes him across town to Orange Mound. Next, it's on to Millbranch Road, to a hotel where a family with four little girls is temporarily housed while damage to their home from the summer wind storm is being repaired.
Since DHS guidelines don't allow children to remain on buses for one-way trips longer than 45 minutes, Hathaway and van monitor Jerri Matthews keep an eye on the clock. As the children board the van, Matthews records the time and constantly updates Hathaway. "In the mornings our routes are usually pretty quiet. It's so early and the children are usually still pretty sleepy," she says. Matthews has worked in the child-care industry for 28 years.
Many of the children are accompanied to the bus by parents, and many are young mothers living in some of the roughest Memphis neighborhoods. "The center is real good about working with the parents on payments and things like that," says Hathaway. "There's a lot of kids needing day-care out here, and even with help it's still hard."
Our Future Learning Center owner James Yancey is well known in the day-care industry for his outspoken disapproval of many DHS-imposed regulations. "We stand to lose $94,000 this year in transportation [subsidies]," he says. "I would have preferred for them to just shut us down than to nickel-and-dime us this way, because eventually we'll have to close anyway. It just costs too much to run these buses without some help from the state." Yancey, who has been in business since 1986, estimates his transportation costs, including payroll, fuel, and maintenance exceed $250,000 a year. More than 70 percent of the children attending his centers require transportation. "I've been in this business a long time and I'm just tired of this," he says. "When I started out, it was a good business to be in, but now it's too much, it's just too much."
Yancey is one of the supporters of the transportation stoppage. He admits the loss of revenue will hurt him, but he says it's a small price to pay in the long run. "I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get this stopped and get someone to listen. I'll protest, picket, whatever, even go to jail if I have to."
In July 2000, DHS strengthened its requirements for day-care providers: Criminal background checks are now required for all employees; vehicles must have liability and accident insurance; the report card and Star Quality rating system were established; the adult-to-child ratio was increased; and DHS' complaint hotline number is required on the sides of all day-care vehicles.
Many of the rules were implemented after a series of transportation incidents in Shelby County, including fatal accidents, children dying aftere being left on vans during summer months, and several seat-belt and overcrowding violations.
"It's easy to see why many providers, especially those in Shelby County, would think that [the timing of the cuts] was done on purpose, but it was not," says Lake. "We had begun this discussion and had some concerns about how to meet our budget going back to last year."
But Bowers and providers see the latest round of cuts as a bigger issue. They believe the department is looking to not only halt transportation by individual centers but even force some of them to close. "It's a conspiracy, that's what I think," says Bowers. "[DHS] is trying to put more and more on these providers to close them down and privatize the industry. They tried to do this before and [the legislature] stopped it, and they're trying it again." Bowers describes an alleged attempt years ago by DHS to begin using a large broker, Day Care of America, to oversee child-care in Tennessee. "I'm mad and I say, 'No,'" Bowers says. "As a matter of fact, I say, 'Hell no!'" Some providers claim a Memphis-area company has been mentioned for the job this time. Lake denies DHS wants to privatize the industry.
Bowers and her constituents were instrumental in thwarting another proposed October subsidy cut. Plans were in place to disallow transportation subsidies and other Families First services for mothers with babies 16 weeks or younger who "volunteered" to return to work although exempt from work requirements under the Families First plan. Although the cut would only have affected 1,559 cases statewide and 754 in Shelby County, Bowers and Lake agreed the cut was actually a detriment to many mothers wanting to get off welfare. "We might have saved some money, but it doesn't make sense in some situations not to allow the person to access those services. They're being penalized for what we want folks to do anyway, whether it's finishing high school or going to work," says Lake.
|Rev. James White listens to speakers during a recent meeting of parents and day-care providers.|
Pastor Lenon Coleman of SSB Learning Academy stands quietly in the back of the meeting room, taking it all in. "I can't say I can afford to park my buses [in protest]," he says, "but I've got to make a sacrifice."
Some of the parents here are also concerned about the effects of the transportation stoppage. "I have three children who attend day-care," says Erica Gonzalez, 25. "I'm in college at LeMoyne-Owen and about to graduate. What am I supposed to do, take my children to school with me? I think this protest is hurting some of the same people it's designed to help."
Gonzalez's sentiments are echoed by van driver Lavell Osby. Her employer, Kids School, instructed its drivers not to report to work after October 1st. "We've got three drivers and three monitors on our buses, and now all of us are out of jobs," she says. "What are we going to do?"
Keep the faith, says Manning. While the short-term outlook for some is grim, she is sure the long-term effects will be worth the inconvenience. Manning has had to terminate 17 of her employees since last year. "Before DHS started giving out these subsidies, [providers] just operated neighborhood centers or didn't provide transportation at all. But transportation costs money and we needed it, so everyone started competing for those dollars. Now we're stuck with providers crisscrossing the city to pick up kids."
But DHS is standing firm. "We understand transportation costs a considerable amount," says Lake. "But we don't require transportation. Prior to 1999 we weren't paying for this and yet somehow the system worked in providing child-care for these families then."
The parents and providers at this meeting say they won't allow DHS to railroad through its subsidy cuts. "No Justice, No Peace" has become their rallying cry.