Commentary: Investing in Tennessee’s children is long overdue

April 19, 2022 6:59 am
(Photo: Getty Images)

(Photo: Getty Images)

My girlfriend lives in southeast Pennsylvania, so every other Friday I hop on a plane in Nashville and fly up.  This past weekend, we were at a party in Philadelphia and during the course of conversation with a group of people, I mentioned that I lived in Tennessee.  I got a side-eye from one person, raised eyebrows from another, and one of them finally said, “Damn.  There’s some crazy stuff going on down there, right?” 

Usually, when something like that is said it’s said in reference to tornadoes or some other weather related phenomenon, but this time it was all about book bannings, deputizing citizens, LGBTQ discrimination, underage marriages, unconstitutional abortion bills, and every other inane piece of legislation that has been presented in Nashville over the last few months.  Two hours later, Marsha Blackburn was parodied on Saturday Night Live, and the idea that we are all truly living in the theater of the absurd in Tennessee crystalized into a stone-cold reality.   

As darkly comical as some of these bills seem to be, the reality of the damage they can do is very real.  It’s funny to make jokes about Marsha’s questions about gender or opine on the relevance of John Rich as he unbelievably draws a connecting line between pedophiles and school librarians, but while all of this absurdity is taking place, what are we missing in Tennessee?  The reality of what’s been overlooked is truly frightening.

Last month, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released their KIDS COUNT data for every state.  KIDS COUNT uses several different indicators to determine rankings including economic well-being, access to educational resources, access to healthcare, and family and community dynamics.  Much like its ranking in education funding, Tennessee was close to the bottom in these rankings as well—39th to be exact.  

Drilling down further into the well-being of children in the state, Tennessee finds itself in the same position as many other states—lacking affordable access to childcare.  This is especially true in rural areas such as northeast Tennessee, and also where I live in West Tennessee.  In fact, my county of residence, Madison, was ranked last in the state in overall well-being for children.  

In rural West Tennessee, access to affordable childcare is nearly non-existent.  The federal guideline for what should be considered affordable childcare is around 7% of a person’s salary but in reality, childcare in West Tennessee hovers around 45% of a single person’s income. 

When I was growing up, my dad and I would drive across the state to watch the Vols play in Knoxville on Saturdays.  Even as a kid, I knew there was something different about West Tennessee. The people seemed a little more diverse in West Tennessee.  The humidity seemed to weigh a little more. The ground was a little softer and the grass a little greener.  And, in my adult years, I’ve also discovered that a lot of counties in this area are poor.  In a capitalistic society, a generational cycle of poverty is nearly impossible to break.  What does that have to do with childcare access?  A lot more than you would think.

Olivia Abernathy, Director of Early Education Initiatives and Bright Start Tennessee Network Coordinator for West Tennessee, is one of nine Bright Start Fellows under the umbrella of Tennesseans for Quality Early Education (TQEE) who have been tasked with bridging the gap between policy and practice when it comes to affordable childcare access.  

“TQEE was born out of advocacy for universal Pre-Kindergarten.  From there, they expanded their focus on the 0-8 age range for children,” she said.  “There are six regions across the state that TQEE is focusing on in order to build out a strategic plan to address a lot of the gaps in the 0-8 age range including childcare but also pre-k, health, mental health, etc.”

In rural West Tennessee, access to affordable childcare is nearly non-existent.  The federal guideline for what should be considered affordable childcare is around 7% of a person’s salary.  In reality, childcare in West Tennessee hovers around 45% of a single person’s income.  Access (or lack thereof) to affordable childcare directly impacts a child’s development, the workforce, the economy, and indirectly affects many more aspects of a community.  For some, access to childcare is a privilege that makes a small dent in their pocketbooks.  For most people, however, finding and affording childcare is a burdensome task.  

“If a parent makes under a certain amount of money, there are subsidies available,” Abernathy explained.  “There’s ‘Families First’ which is part of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families  (TANF).  Someone could apply for TANF and get childcare funds through that and it will pay 100% of childcare for up to 60 months.  That’s fine if you have only one child, but the funds are only available to one parent.  If a parent has multiple children under the age of five, the parent would have to split the funding between the children.”  

Under Tennessee law, a parent earning under the threshold of the qualifying amount must prove they are looking for a job, and that process consists of an exorbitant amount of red tape through which to cut.  Not only is a parent raising a child, but also looking for a sustainable job all the while having to prove they are looking for a sustainable job so that their childcare money isn’t pulled out from under them.  Oh, and if they find a job that pushes them past the qualifying threshold, they no longer receive the childcare funding and have to fund it all themselves.  It’s a no win situation for a lot of parents.  

As far as TQEE is concerned, though, there are some silver linings in what appears to be a very dark cloud.

“I’ve heard from colleagues across the state who say this is the time to reimagine what childcare looks like,” Olivia said.  “Both parties want childcare, but seem to come at it from different angles.”

State legislators from both sides of the aisle have verbally acknowledged the need for affordable childcare and also serve on various boards across the state that advocate for affordable childcare.  However, there have been opportunities to mitigate the financial damage that the necessity for childcare can cause our most vulnerable citizens that members of the Republican party have chosen not to exercise.  

We’re not starting at the beginning when it comes to building a person and supporting a human life, and we’re reaping the consequences of that down the line.

– Olivia Abernathy of Bright Start Tennessee

For years, under a Republican majority, Tennessee sat on over 700 million dollars in TANF money.  In 2019, when that fact was brought to light, lawmakers began working on ways to disperse that money to people who needed it, although there were unnecessary strings attached to receiving it.  Another opportunity that would have greatly increased overall child well-being in Tennessee was to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.   Not exercising this option caused over 100,000 children to lose healthcare coverage. That number continues to grow.  

In a state where the Republican majority and the governor push the narrative of valuing life and use that narrative to take away healthcare rights and options from women, one would think those same lawmakers would want to make sure that children being born in Tennessee are well taken care of when those children are actually living and breathing on their own.  If for nothing else, productive citizens can contribute to a productive economy, right?

Investing in Tennessee’s children is long overdue.  Not only is this investment desperately needed for children before they start kindergarten, but also once they enter the world of K-12 education.  TQEE wants to support children even after they are enrolled in an elementary school.

“We’re focusing on health, families, and early learning environments,” Olivia said.  “We want to make sure teachers have the support they need.  We want to make sure students have support in attending school, so we would want social workers at every school. We would love to see nurses at every school.”

The value of a life does not end once a child is born.  The most important investment our state can make is in caring for and educating children at an early age.  

“We’re not starting at the beginning when it comes to building a person and supporting a human life, and we’re reaping the consequences of that down the line,” Olivia said.

The last paragraph on Gov. Bill Lee’s bio page on the state website says this:

‘The governor and first lady are people of strong faith. They are active in numerous faith-based ministries, which have taken them all over the world to serve people in need, including to Africa, Haiti, Central America, and the Middle East.”

Well, Mr. Lee—we’ve got some people in need here in West Tennessee.  Maybe put more of that TANF money where your mouth is.  

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Gabe Hart
Gabe Hart

Gabe Hart is chief communications officer for Haywood County Schools and a former teacher of English and Literature. He writes a monthly op-ed column for The Jackson Sun as well as feature stories for the quarterly journal, "Our Jackson Home." He also serves on the education committee for the newly formed Jackson Equity Project which seeks to advocate for equity and justice for marginalized, disenfranchised, and oppressed people living in Jackson. Beyond writing and teaching, Gabe enjoys spending time with his fourteen year old daughter, exercising, and listening to music (specifically The National and Jason Isbell.)