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More Than a Year After Mississippi Forced Her To Give Birth, It Still Hasn’t Offered Any Extra Help
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More Than a Year After Mississippi Forced Her To Give Birth, It Still Hasn’t Offered Any Extra Help

This is part two of a series following Lationna Halbert, one of the first to be denied an abortion after the Supreme Court’s June 2022 Dobbs ruling, as she navigates raising a second child she didn’t plan for. Read part one, on Lationna’s experiences in the first three months after childbirth, here.

Most nights this May, Lationna Halbert’s three-month-old baby Kingsley woke up at 4 a.m. and wouldn’t go back to sleep for over an hour. If she was lucky, her 5:50 alarm didn’t wake him in his Pack n Play next to her bed, and — after she finally got herself out of bed a half hour later — she had enough time to get herself and her older son, 5-year-old Royalty, dressed before turning to the baby. If she was unlucky, Kingsley was screaming to be picked up while Lationna struggled to get her clothes on. A metal sculpture sat on her dresser in the shape of L for Lationna and a K for Kendall Taylor, her fiancé, with a heart in the middle, but Kendall was already out the door to make it to work by 6.

She often relented to Kingsley’s crying and mixed multiple bottles of formula while gathering his diapers and clothes with him on her hip. The goal was to get everyone out of the house by 7 a.m. so that Lationna could get Kingsley to her great-aunt’s house, and herself and Royalty to his elementary school before school breakfast was over and her job as a school IT clerk started at 7:30. Royalty helped out, carrying Kingsley’s cow-print diaper bag and his own Spiderman backpack out to the car into the dewy early morning, just as the sun started to rise. But without Kendall on hand, leaving on time almost never happened. Most days Lationna arrived at work after 8.

I’m tired,” says Lationna in what had become something of a mantra that she uttered repeatedly throughout the day.

first wrote about Lationna after visiting her in March, when she was still on unpaid maternity leave. She told me then that she had always planned to have a second baby someday, once her life was more stable. She’d wanted to be married, better paid, and for the family to live in a house instead of their cramped apartment in West Jackson, Miss. She’d been planning to go to cosmetology school so she could leave her job — which paid barely above minimum wage at $8.50 an hour — and follow her dreams to start her own beauty business.

But instead, in July 2022, she’d learned she was pregnant — just weeks after the Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to abortion with its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case that originated in Lationna’s home state. Mississippi’s abortion ban trigger law went into effect less than two weeks later. She contacted the only abortion clinic that remained in the state but never heard back because it had already closed. She didn’t have the money to travel out of state.

Kingsley was born at the end of January. In the early days, Lationna was struggling to adjust to being a new mom when she hadn’t chosen to be, wrestling with sleepless nights, isolation and postpartum depression. After Lationna went back to work, she and Kendall entered a new phase, enjoying a bit more sleep but trying desperately to figure out how to afford raising a child they hadn’t planned for with scant government help. The typical exhaustion and chaos of parenting two young children has been exacerbated by a lack of control over the timing and their economic precarity. Mississippi does virtually nothing to ease that precarity, and despite some pledges from lawmakers to do more to assist children and families after it banned abortion, little has changed in the year and a half since Lationna was deprived of autonomy over her own body.

Now that 21 states have banned or severely restricted abortion, an untold number of people are following in Lationna’s footsteps: trying to piece together enough money to care for a new child they weren’t ready for and navigating government bureaucracies in states that offer families little to no financial relief. Lationna and Kendall have caught a few lucky breaks, but for each advance they make the tide pulls them further backward, barely treading water as their dreams and ambitions drift further and further away.

 

The costs keep piling up

When Lationna returned to work the first week of April, nine weeks after she gave birth, ​I felt love,” she said, as she was showered with gifts for Administrative Professionals Day. She was happy to be back, to be ​out and about and actually doing some work instead of being home with the baby 24/7.”

Being back also meant she was finally getting a paycheck after months of relying on Kendall to cover the household bills. She’d received no paid maternity leave and had exhausted her sick days on prenatal appointments and caring for Royalty by the time Kingsley was born.

Even after she returned, she wasn’t earning what she needed. ​I started looking at another job instantly,” she said. She wasn’t the only one. Although Kendall worked 12-hour days as a welder, earning $18 an hour, plus side work on the weekends, he was already seeking a third job by May.

Costs kept piling up. They paid Lationna’s 80-year-old great aunt $50 a week to watch Kingsley after she returned to work. Kendall’s truck broke down in the spring. After last year’s water crisis in Jackson — which first left residents with no tap water at all, and then with water that was unsafe to drink — the family also had to either spend a lot of money on bottled water or hours in line at free distribution sites. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, that covered Kingsley’s formula didn’t cover bottled water to mix it with.

Then their rent, $853 a month, shot up by nearly $50 extra in July. Their landlord was raising the rent on an apartment that was falling apart: Kitchen cabinet doors hung halfway off their hinges and the bottom of the dishwasher had nearly come off. It took two months to get a maintenance person to come out when the air conditioning broke over the summer, and when one finally arrived, he just patched it with tape.

The rent increase sent Lationna’s yen to move into high gear. She wanted to be anywhere but Jackson. But her dream of moving to a new house remained perpetually out of reach. They signed a new yearlong lease in July to avoid an even steeper hike — $1,200 a month to go month to month — potentially locking them in until next year.

They didn’t have the savings to cover moving expenses, since Lationna’s paychecks went entirely to basic necessities for the household and the kids. She did beauty appointments on the weekends to cover expenses, trying to schedule clients for Kingsley’s nap time while Royalty watched something on his tablet, but she kept her rates low because it was all under the table.

Government support was meager. Lationna signed Kingsley up for food stamps — no small feat given the onerous requirements Mississippi places on parents. She started receiving $750 a month to cover her and her sons. Royalty’s afterschool program was covered by a childcare voucher. The children were on Medicaid, and Lationna had enrolled herself as well when she became pregnant.

But she didn’t receive help paying for any other necessities. Thanks to copious red tape, just 4% of poor Mississippi families get cash assistance from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, so she never bothered to apply. The expanded federal Child Tax Credit that gave parents as much as $300 a month for each child in 2021 expired at the end of that year. The wait to get a rental voucher in Mississippi averages nearly a decade. And her state seems disinterested in offering anything else.

 

Broken promises

The states that rushed to ban or severely limit abortion after the Dobbs decision were the same ones that already did little to nothing for new parents and young families. But some signaled they might finally shore up the safety net for mothers like Lationna after the loss of the constitutional right to abortion. A smattering of Congressional Republicans resurfaced plans for paid family leave, and Senator Rick Scott (R-Fla.), then head of the Republican Senate campaign committee, said the party had to ​do everything in our power to meet the needs of struggling women and their families so they can choose life.” In Mississippi, Republican Governor Tate Reeves proposed a ​new pro-life agenda” to offer more help for mothers and babies, and the state Senate convened a Study Group on Women, Children and Families.

Almost nothing has come of all that talk.

None of the states that have banned or severely restricted abortion access have implemented paid family or sick leave since last summer. None have passed laws giving workers a right to more humane scheduling practices. Only Idaho, Oklahoma and Utah offer parents a child tax credit, and none make it refundable, meaning the poorest families can’t receive it. Nebraska is the only state that passed an increase in its minimum wage, and only then thanks to voters who approved a ballot measure at the end of 2022, not lawmakers.

Among the few changes made after Dobbs, the most common was extending postpartum Medicaid coverage for 12 months after someone gives birth. Since August 2022, Arizona, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota implemented such an extension. Mississippi just did the same this month, and Texas and Nebraska plan to follow suit. But neither Idaho nor Arkansas have, meaning people in both states lose coverage 60 days after giving birth. Idaho lawmakers let a bill that would have extended coverage die in this year’s session.

A year of Medicaid coverage also goes by very fast. Mississippi, along with six other states that ban or effectively ban abortion, still hasn’t expanded Medicaid to all low-income adults, leaving people like Lationna with few affordable options when their year of postpartum coverage is up.

The only other help Mississippi has offered parents since Dobbs was to eliminate a longstanding requirement that unmarried mothers cooperate with child support enforcement to get a childcare subsidy — in effect, forcing a poor mother to report her children’s father to the state, no matter how involved he is, so it can take his child support payments to reimburse itself. In the month after the policy change, the state enrolled more than 3,000 new people.

But otherwise ​everything still looks pretty much as it did,” says Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative executive director Carol Burnett, despite lawmakers’ pledges to make changes.

While Democratic state lawmakers introduced a series of bills to reform the state’s scandal-plagued TANF program, including ones to simplify the process and ensure more gets spent on childcare assistance, none made it out of committee. No other bills introduced last spring to ensure rights for pregnant workers, paid family leave, affordable childcare or a higher minimum wage advanced either.

The lack of action has left community groups to try to fill in the gaps. Laurie Bertram Roberts, executive director of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, gets calls every day from people seeking free diapers and help paying bills. Since Dobbs, she says, ​There’s definitely a higher need.”

The Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable, which offers money to people in crisis, likewise gets a lot of calls from mothers struggling to make ends meet — for childcare, rent or other necessities. ​They’re low-wage workers and they don’t have enough money to really pay for childcare,” says the group’s co-convener Cassandra Welchlin.

Affordable housing is also hard to come by, even in low-income Jackson. To afford a two-bedroom apartment in the city’s downtown, a family would have to earn at least $20 an hour; even out in West Jackson where Lationna lives, it takes $17.31 or more. Welchlin gets a call ​every other day,” she says, from a mother ​who’s having difficulty with paying her rent.”

Last year, Governor Reeves pulled out of the federal rental assistance offered as pandemic relief and sent money back to the government. Thanks to the state’s weak tenant protections, evictions happen quickly, typically in a matter of weeks. ​We’re seeing so many evictions of people who are just a month or two behind on rent,” says Ian Gustafson, equal justice works fellow at the Mississippi Center for Justice. They mostly hit people like Lationna: Of the 1,041 people who have called his organization’s eviction hotline since April 2020, two-thirds have been female, and of those nearly 70% were Black. A neon-colored eviction notice recently hung on the door of the apartment next to Lationna’s, over just $150 in back rent.

The experience of pregnancy and child rearing is rapidly diverging between states that ban abortion and those that don’t. States that haven’t restricted abortion — and which already had more generous policies to support parents — have done more for families since Dobbs. Delaware, Maine and Minnesota all passed paid family leave programs, joining 10 others. Minnesota also passed paid sick leave, following 13 other states. Eleven states that don’t restrict abortion added or improved a state child tax credit.

Without national policies, ​we’re leaving it to the states,” says National Partnership for Women & Families senior fellow Katherine Gallagher Robbins, which means ​we’re going to see this broader and broader gap.”

But even if there were a robust safety net to make pregnancy, childbirth and raising a child easier, it still couldn’t substitute for people’s bodily autonomy, she continues. ​The idea that you could do one of these things without the other and that would be sufficient is just really wrongheaded.”

 

They keep struggling even when they catch a break

If mornings were hectic for Lationna and her family, evenings weren’t much of a relief. At the end of the workday, she did everything in reverse: picking up Royalty from his afterschool program, then Kingsley, then heading home to ​cook, sleep and do it again the next day,” she said. ​Trying to keep sane.” Once the boys were asleep, she cooked dinner for herself and went to bed immediately after, often before Kendall was home.

Her sanity was also tested by trying to fit four people in a two-bedroom apartment. Many nights Kingsley woke up screaming until she put him in bed with her. Kendall often slept on the black leather couch in the living room. ​It bugs me sometimes,” she said. ​But I got used to it.” She was too afraid to put Kingsley in Royalty’s bedroom until he could walk, scared of what the two would get up to together. Plus Royalty’s room was already crowded, with clothes piled in bins and toys covering the small floor and bed. She put off the decision about what to do when Kingsley outgrew his crib, determined that they would be in a larger house by then.

Kingsley was devoted to Kendall, waiting impatiently for him to get home every night, but their time together was limited. His eyes angle downward just like his father’s; Lationna calls him Kendall’s twin. Both father’s and son’s faces light up when Kendall is able to find a sliver of time for them to play. But most evenings he arrived home from work an hour after the rest of the family, cowboy boots and jeans splattered with paint and dust, and went straight to the shower.

Their chaotic schedules were taking a toll on Lationna and Kendall’s relationship, too. They never went on dates without the kids. Their wedding was deferred until, as Lationna insisted, they could move into a house. Sometimes she allowed herself to dream about it: what season would be best to get married in, whether to have a church ceremony or go to a judge. But ​mainly I want to be stable before we go and splurge on some money,” she said.

Despite their economic strain, they needed a break, some kind of relief. It took months of saving and a frenzy of beauty clients in her free time to come up with $400, but at the beginning of September Lationna and Kendall left their kids with family members and joined the rest of her family to go on a weeklong cruise to Mexico. It was the first time either had left the country. ​This is a big deal for us,” Lationna said. She admires her older brother, who’s in the military and has seen the world. ​I say, ​Go for it. Live your best life,’” she said. ​Do everything you can before you die.” She dreams of someday bringing her children on a cruise.

Upon their return, some things started to get a bit easier. In September, Lationna’s paycheck included a raise to $10.50 an hour, and she was promised a dollar raise every year. She got a childcare voucher for Kingsley and in mid-September put him in the same daycare Royalty attended after school. That meant dropping Kingsley off much closer to her job in the mornings and picking both kids up at the same location, while saving $50 every week.

Kendall also shifted his schedule to start work at 7:30 a.m., allowing him to leave for work after helping Lationna and the kids get out the door. Now, says Lationna, ​We get out on time, every morning.”

In the evenings Lationna and the kids get home before Kendall, and, on nights when she can summon the energy, she cooks dinner for them. One Thursday in late September she stopped at a grocery store on the way home from work — her food stamps wouldn’t come through until the following week, but she’d gotten paid that day, so she could afford it. After a brief break sitting on the couch, she rallied herself to start cooking, chopping potatoes and pork and putting them with frozen broccoli into foil pans. Royalty played on a phone on the couch, while Kingsley played with the broken cabinet doors from a walker under Lationna’s feet in the kitchen. He never stopped moving or putting any object in reach in his mouth.

The couch remained made up with pillows and a blanket, but Kendall was trying to spend more nights in the bedroom. The couple had reconnected on the cruise, and when they got back they vowed to go on dates, just the two of them, twice a month — taking turns planning for each other.

Lationna is also on track to get a promotion next year, taking over for an office manager who’s leaving. That would give her a huge increase in pay, at $18.50 an hour, but also a lot more work. When she was first offered the promotion she wavered — adding more responsibility into her frenzied life seemed impossible. But ultimately, she decided that, even if the extra stress sapped her energy, the money was too much to pass up. She was ​hoping and praying” the extra income wouldn’t make her ineligible for benefits like food stamps.

They were still barely breaking even as her boys grew fast and costs kept climbing. By seven months old, Kingsley was wearing clothes meant for a one-and-a-half-year-old, and, not expecting to have another child soon, Lationna had already given Royalty’s hand-me-downs to a cousin. The diapers, clothes and wipes that she had stacked in her closet from a baby shower were long gone. Plus Kendall was paying about $300 a month on a new auto loan for the car he had to buy to replace the one that broke down. Being back to work full time, Lationna felt pressure to cover her half of her expenses the way she always had before Kingsley was born.

She much preferred Medicaid to her employer’s expensive health insurance, which she could barely make use of before she got pregnant. But in August she received a letter telling her she had to submit paperwork to stay on Medicaid. Early in the pandemic the federal government banned states from kicking people off Medicaid, but last April that protection expired, and states began requiring people to recertify. In Mississippi, 90,100 people have lost coverage since then, nearly 80% for paperwork problems.

Lationna struggled to find the time to complete the process, and by late September Kingsley still had coverage but hers and Royalty’s had lapsed. She knew she needed to fix it; she needed to get her wisdom teeth pulled and she was ​toughing it out” with pain medication. She also wanted to get her tubes tied — something she’d been adamant about when she was pregnant with Kingsley, but which hospital staff had talked her out of, leaving her back on the same hormonal birth control implant that had led to her getting pregnant in the first place. She was ​hoping and praying” that she didn’t end up having a third child like her mother.

It was obvious that she didn’t really have a choice,” she said. ​And now I don’t either.”

 

Disappearing dreams for the future

If research is any guide, Lationna is up against enormous odds as she tries to not only make ends meet but eventually build the life she wants. A recent study in Sweden found that six years after women experienced unplanned pregnancies, their ​career progression” had halted and their earnings dropped by 30%.

The landmark Turnaway Study by University of California San Francisco demographer Diana Greene Foster also offers clues about what lies ahead for Lationna’s family. In 2008, Foster began comparing women who were able to get the abortions they sought to those who were over the gestational limit. Six months later, the ones who were denied an abortion were far more likely to live in poverty.

And the cost only metastasized over time. A year later, the women who were turned away were less likely to achieve their life goals. ​For years we see higher financial distress,” Foster says. Even after five years, the two groups of women — those who had gotten the abortions they sought and those who didn’t — never converged.

People who seek abortions know what they’re up against. It’s why many say they’re seeking an abortion in the first place. ​People know ahead of time they don’t have the resources to support a newborn, and they’re right,” Foster says.

Their hunch is particularly true in a country that does so little to financially support parenthood. ​Having children is costly,” notes Kate Bahn, director of research at WorkRise at the Urban Institute. ​It is hard to get ahead having a child as a low-income mother trapped in the cycle of poverty.” Some people have been able to travel for abortions since Dobbs. But plenty have been forced to give birth. There were 25,640 fewer legal abortions in March 2023 than in July 2022, when post-Dobbs state restrictions had just begun to take effect. At least 9,800 more babies were born in Texas in the year after it banned abortion. Mississippi is expecting about 4,000 more babies to be born thanks to Dobbs this year. ​We are shoving women into the general circumstances low-income women face when they become mothers,” Bahn said.

When Diane Derzis ran Jackson Women’s Health, Mississippi’s sole abortion provider before the state ban forced it to close, she served women who were ​able to live the kind of life they envisioned,” she says. ​Abortion makes a difference in people’s lives.”

Lationna was excited about the extra money that would come with her promotion next school year, but her calling is doing hair and makeup. She taught herself by watching YouTube videos when she was in high school, but only started doing it professionally a few years ago. ​It took me a minute to find a passion, something I like, something I thought I was good at,” she said. Just before she found out she was pregnant with Kingsley, she’d started seriously looking into cosmetology school so she could get licensed. But her school search ended with the pregnancy, and her dreams of owning her own beauty business have slid further into the future. ​Of course I want to do it,” she said. ​But where do I have the time?” Just after Kingsley’s birth she’d hoped she might be able to return to school once he was walking. Now she’d pushed that back until the boys were in middle school at least.

She frequently talked about wanting to set up a beauty studio in the corner of their apartment where a dining room would normally be. But in September it was still bare and filled with the family’s detritus, including a stack of blue water jugs. She still saw clients at home, but the knowledge that she could charge a lot more if she were certified constantly gnawed at her.

Kendall still hadn’t found a third job, but he was hoping to add a more lucrative part-time night position in an oilfield. If he did find one, it would mean even less time at home with his family. ​Which I don’t think makes sense,” Lationna said. Kendall didn’t seem to mind. Having two kids ​is just motivation,” he said. ​It keeps me going.”

Lationna and Kendall were touring rental houses with more bedrooms; in a video she took of a townhouse a 15-minute drive away, she walked up the front steps to enter a first floor with a big kitchen and living room with a fireplace and then went upstairs to view the bedrooms. ​It looks so spacious,” she said. Light poured in the many windows, a stark contrast to their dark apartment that had few. It had its own washer and dryer, meaning no more lugging laundry to family members’ houses. The rent was $1,380 a month.

I’d rather go broke there,” Lationna mused. But they didn’t have the money even to move — first month’s rent and a security deposit at the very least, let alone nearly $500 more in rent every month. By late September, they were behind on their light and internet bills and hadn’t been able to put anything away in savings. ​Every time I turn around I have a bill to pay, I have to make sure my kids are okay or something is going on with the house I can’t fix,” she said. Whatever would be left after catching up, Lationna needed to spend on buying winter clothes for her boys and, if she could swing it, Christmas presents.

Still, they dreamed. Kendall of the country, where he grew up, somewhere ​peaceful.” Lationna of leaving Mississippi entirely, to somewhere like Dallas, a place where she could do more with her children and get more out of life. ​Mississippi can’t afford that,” she said.

Standing outside as the sun set over her apartment complex, she puzzled over why anyone would want to stay in Mississippi. ​They belittle us. They do the bare minimum,” she said. The state ranks at ​the bottom of the bottom. We don’t progress.”

This is why, she said, she wants so badly to leave the place she’s most of her life, the state that took away her ability to choose when and how to have children and that has offered her so little as she struggles to raise them. ​I don’t like that feeling,” she said. ​I want to progress.”

This article was supported by the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting and the journalism nonprofit Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

 

Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy. She is a reporter in residence at the Omidyar Network and a contributing writer at The Nation. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Time Magazine, the Washington Post, New York Magazine, Wired, the New Republic, Slate and others.

Co-published with In These Times.

Save An Endangered Species: Journalists

Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy. She is a reporter in residence at the Omidyar Network and a contributing writer at The Nation. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Time Magazine, the Washington Post, New York Magazine, Wired, the New Republic, Slate and others. She won a 2016 Exceptional Merit in Media Award from the National Women’s Political Caucus and the John Swett Merit Certificate from the California Teachers Association in both 2019 and 2022. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, NPR and other outlets.

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