Mississippi banned most abortions to be the 'safest state' for the unborn. Meanwhile, one in three Mississippi kids lives in poverty.

·13 min read
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Drusilla Hicks, a single mom in Mississippi, with her two youngest kids.Rory Doyle for Insider
  • Mississippi lawmakers said the ban on most abortions after 15 weeks would make Mississippi 'the safest state in the country' for the unborn.

  • The Supreme Court will hear a challenge to Mississippi's abortion law on Dec. 1.

  • Advocates say Mississippi, the poorest state in the country, offers little support for children 'once they're here.'

Brandon, Mississippi – Drusilla Hicks sinks into her couch. A week ago, she and her three young kids moved into their new home. After unloading the moving truck herself, unpacking all the boxes, and hanging photos on the wall, she's exhausted.

All around her, stacks of folded laundry are perched on every available surface.

Hicks wakes at five o'clock every morning and doesn't get home from work until dark. Between her daughter's cheerleading practice, her son's homework, and the baby's bath time, she rarely gets time to herself. The only reason she was home alone on a late October morning was because she'd been in a car accident the day before.

Her body aching, Hicks, who's 28, was supposed to be resting. But the laundry won't fold itself.

As a single mom with no child support, Hicks struggles. Her mother and the kids' grandmothers help out with childcare when they can. But the salary she earns from her job as an office manager for the county isn't enough to cover her bills. Her income is just a bit over the threshold for her to qualify for state aid. After trying repeatedly to request some kind of assistance, she's stopped asking.

Instead, a friend helps her pay the bills each month. Without him, she's not sure where she and her children would be living. Right now, she's worried about how she will pay the $1,000 deductible to repair her car from the accident. To provide for her children, she often "pinches," or goes without.

"I'm trying to give my children a better life than I had," Hicks says. "It's hard because I'm trying to make sure they do the extra stuff they want to do, as well as make sure my bills are paid. If I don't have something, I go without and they'll just never know."

After a moment, she gets up again. Soon, it will be time to pick up the kids.

The children that are here

In March of 2019, Mississippi drew national headlines when Governor Phil Bryant signed into law one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country, making Mississippi – as backers of the bill frequently put it – "the safest place in the country for unborn babies."

A challenge to the law, which bans most abortions after 15 weeks, has made it to the US Supreme Court and oral arguments are scheduled for Dec 1. It will be the first major challenge to abortion rights that the court has heard since Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative Trump appointee, was seated.

A women walks with a young boy on the street.
Drusilla Hicks walks with her son.Rory Doyle for Insider

In the meantime, Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch has been making the rounds on the national Christian media circuit—she rarely speaks with media in the state—touting the "empowering" options and opportunities that would stem from overturning Roe v. Wade.

"You have the option in life to really achieve your dream and goals, and you can have those beautiful children as well," Fitch said in September.

But community leaders and organizers left with filling in the gaps left from the absence of state aid tell another story. They point to past legislative sessions where Mississippi leaders have repeatedly passed laws that make it harder for families to access aid, while stonewalling on bills that are designed to address income gaps.

All of this puts Mississippi on the path to forcing women to have children, then providing little to no safety net once the children are born.

"We've had so many state leaders who have talked about wanting Mississippi to be the safest state in the country for unborn babies. Every time I hear that, I think, 'Oh my god, let's make this state the safest in the country for born babies,'" said Carol Burnette, executive director of the nonprofit Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative.

"They're so determined about their anti-abortion stance; there's just no similar match to being concerned about children once they're here."

A domino effect

Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation. Around 600,000 people here, nearly 20 percent of Mississippians, live in poverty. It's even higher for kids: one in three Mississippi children live in poverty.

In Mississippi, maternal deaths occur in 33.2 of every 100,000 births – nearly twice the national average of 17 deaths per 100,000 – and the state has the highest rate of infant mortality.

Mississippi classrooms teach abstinence as sex education; there is no promotion of safe sex or contraceptives. The state has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the nation.

Additionally, Mississippi is the only state without a law requiring equal pay, which advocates say especially disadvantages Black women and single moms. The Annie E. Casey Foundation consistantly lists Mississippi last in its annual state ranking of overall child well-being.

The issues facing poor Mississippi families are interconnected, creating a domino effect, so one issue exacerbates another.

Three rows of photographs are mounted on a wall, with two crosses.
A wall of family photos at Drusilla Hicks' new home.Rory Doyle for Insider

According to Lea Anne Brandon, a former spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Children and Families, the overwhelming majority of children removed from their homes were living in poverty.

"It wasn't 'I don't want to take care of this child,'" Brandon said. "It's 'I don't have the resources to or I don't have money to put them in daycare,' or 'I don't have enough money to buy them food or clothes or medicine.'"

Based on the thousands of children and families she's seen, Brandon said the state often swoops in to "rescue" children instead of addressing the issue on the front end.

"We're pro-birth. Are we pro-life? We want them born but once they're born, what do we do? 'Here's a pack of diapers' and 'Isn't your child cute?'" Brandon said.

Nakeitra Burse, a maternal health advocate who works with pregnant women and mothers, has a unique vantage point of seeing both the administrative hurdles and the myriad of consequences that stem from a patchwork of care. Hospital closures in rural areas, and funding issues at hospitals across the state, for example, puts pregnant women at greater peril, she said.

Burse points to a recent tragedy, where a young pregnant woman suffered a heart attack. The family lived in a rural part of the state that doesn't have a county hospital, and so the woman's husband attempted to drive her to a neighboring county. They didn't make it. The husband performed CPR on his dying wife on the side of the road. She and the baby died four days before her due date.

"When you think about rural Mississippi, those access and quality issues are a big problem," Burse said. She continues: "Mississippi is so small, I know people that know her."

A brigade of helpers

The tight group of activists, organizers and policy experts who work in this area come together to provide, in many instances, what the state does not. Born out of necessity, they've formed a unique brigade.

Cassandra Welchlin with the Black Women's Roundtable is the voice in the room when it comes to equal pay and how the disparity impacts Black mothers. She'll defer to Burse when it comes to maternal health; Burse rattles off statistics with barely a breath in between, and can talk for hours about the importance of doulas.

Two women clap hands as others sit around a table.
Cassandra Overton Welchlin (right) at a 2018 event to boost voter participation in Mississippi.Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo

And childcare once those babies are born? That's Burnette's wheelhouse. If childcare isn't available or a mom needs help paying her bills that month, it's over to Laurie Bertram Roberts, co-founder of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund and executive director of the Yellowhammer Fund in Alabama, which also advocates for abortion access.

Each of the women has dedicated their life to helping Mississippi women and families. Each of them also express frustration that the state isn't doing more, and, they feel in some instances, making it harder for women to get the help they so desperately need. Republican lawmakers in the state say their thinking comes down to responsible and sustainable budgeting.

Burnette says that she spends a lot of her days navigating the red tape that state lawmakers have put up that makes it more difficult for Mississippians to access federal services.

Take the Child Care Certificate Program, a federal block grant. More than 100,000 Mississippi children should be eligible, but in 2019 – the most recent year for which there's data – just 20,900 benefited from the program.

The federal program is most commonly used by single mothers, but the state added an additional requirement: single parents have to cooperate with child support enforcement in order to enroll, meaning they have to provide information about the children's father so the state can track him down. Many are reluctant to do so.

A woman approaches another women at the entrance to a parking lot.
Laurie Bertram Roberts, left, confronts an abortion opponent blocking the driveway at Jackson Women's Health Organization in 2013. It's the sole abortion clinic in the state.Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo

Prudent spending and a fair slice

While those on the ground have no shortage of suggestions to help push the state forward, on the top of almost everyone's wish lists is expanding access to Medicaid, a federally funded health care program for the poor. But it remains a major, if unreachable, priority for state Democrats.

Currently, low-income women in the state can qualify for Medicaid coverage during their pregnancy and for 60 days after the birth of the child, and two thirds of births in the state are covered by Medicaid.

Under the Affordable Care Act, states could opt-in to expand Medicaid coverage. But Mississippi lawmakers opted against it, joining 11 other states to date. In the 2021 legislative session, a proposal to expand Medicaid coverage to mothers for one year after the birth of the child postpartum failed to make it out of committee.

From the top down, Mississippi Republican leaders have repeatedly spoken out against Medicaid expansion, including the state's current governor, Tate Reeves, and Speaker of the House Phillip Gunn.

In his budget proposal for the 2022 fiscal year, Reeves said, "I remain adamantly opposed to Medicaid expansion in Mississippi. I firmly believe that it is not good public policy to place 300,000 additional Mississippians on government-funded health care."

His spokesperson Bailey Martin told Insider, "Governor Reeves remains opposed to the expansion of Obamacare and Medicaid in Mississippi."

Other issues impact affordability, too. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Mississippi is short 42,000 affordable housing units for families in need. Single-mother households with children under the age of 18 are in the most danger of facing eviction within the next few months, according to Matthew Carpenter of the NAACP.

"We see the linkage between quality affordable housing and pretty much everything," he said. "The state being a low-income, low wage state, that impacts housing prospects for a lot of people, and it impacts the well-being of the kids.

In Mississippi, eight out of ten Black women are heads of household, and many of the state's problems, from poverty to bad health outcomes, would be made more manageable if women's work – and especially Black women's work – was made more valuable, Welchlin said.

A women unbuckles a baby from a carseat in an SUV.
A women unbuckles a baby from a carseat in an SUV.

Drusilla Hicks collects her youngest child from the car.Rory Doyle for Insider

To push that debate along, every year members of the Black Women's Roundtable take slices of pie to the state legislature and leave them on the desks of representatives and senators. The message: we want our slice of the pie.

For Burnette, The resistance to bolstering the state's social safety net is "inextricably tied to race" and a false narrative of the "welfare queen."

"Mississippi has a long history of resisting federal programs and federal funding that comes in with the intent to improve things for poor people," she said.

In fact, she said, "single moms have incredible work ethic." But they have to make ends meet with minimum wage jobs, while navigating the lack of affordable housing and affordable and flexible childcare.

"They're working, they're just working in jobs that pay too little and because they're a single mom and the sole earner, they're hampered – not only by low wages but being the only wage earner," Burnette said.

A full house

Back in Brandon, it's been a week since Hicks' car accident. After work, she picks up the kids, and a pizza for dinner. Settled at the kitchen table, each of the older children grab a plate. Hicks does not, feeding the baby instead.

Hicks has been in her new house for a week but already it has a warm, lived-in look, like they've been there for years. There are framed photos of the children on the wall, mirrors are hung just so, and a pumpkin is arranged on the front porch for fall.

They clear the plates. In the living room, Hicks' daughter practices a cheer routine, which Hicks videos on her phone. Her son circles them on his skateboard. He's energetic, a showman. Later, as she helps him with homework, she worries about his grades.

The worrying never really goes away. Hicks wonders if she's doing enough as a mom, and what more she can do to provide for her kids.

A woman feeds an infants in a high chair while two other kids sit at the table.
Dinnertime at the Hicks home.Rory Doyle for Insider
A woman holds up her phone to capture a girl practices a cheer routine and her boy playing with his skateboard.
Drusilla Hicks making a cellphone video of her daughter's cheer routine.Rory Doyle for Insider
Three kids surround a woman on a couch as she watches a cellphone video.
Drusilla Hicks with her three kids.Rory Doyle for Insider
A woman baths an infant in the sink while an older child looks on.
Drusilla Hicks gives her youngest kid a bath while her daughter looks on.Rory Doyle for Insider
A woman holds an infant as she puts an older child to bed.
Drusilla Hicks putting her son to bed.Rory Doyle for Insider
A woman sits alone in the dark.
Drusilla Hicks getting a rare moment to herself.Rory Doyle for Insider

The night winding down, she bathes the baby in the kitchen sink and tucks her son into bed in his Spiderman sheets. For a moment, it's quiet and Hicks takes a minute to herself, sitting with her phone in the dark.

Hicks is stressed, but she's too exhausted at the end of each day for it to keep her awake at night. "I go to sleep as soon as my head hits the pillow," she says.

She has to sleep sometime. In just a few short hours, it starts all over again.

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