JACKSON, Miss (AP) — In Mississippi, where elected officials have a long history of praising autarky and condemning federal anti-poverty programsa welfare scandal that exposed how millions of dollars were diverted to the rich and powerful – including professional athletes – instead of helping some of the country’s neediest people.
The misuse of welfare funds worries Nsombi Lambright-Haynes, executive director of One Voice, a nonprofit organization that works to help economically vulnerable communities in Mississippi.
“It’s shameful and disgusting, especially when we’re in a state where we hear discussion every year about poor people who don’t need resources and poor people who are lazy and just need to get up to work,” she said.
The state ranked among the poorest in the United States for decades, but only a fraction of federal welfare money was going toward direct assistance to families. Instead, the Mississippi Department of Human Services allowed well-connected people to distribute tens of millions of welfare dollars from 2016 to 2019, according to state auditors and federal prosecutors.
Former Human Services Director John Davis has pleaded guilty to charges related to failing welfare spending in one of the largest public corruption cases in the state..
The scandal has ensnared high-profile figures, including retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre.and is one of more than thirty defendants in a civil suit brought by the current Director of Human Services to try to recover some of the welfare money that was wasted while Davis was in charge.
Temporary Assistance for Families in Need The money has helped fund pet projects for the wealthy, including $5 million for a volleyball court that Favre supported. said Chad White, auditor for the University of Southern Mississippi, at his alma mater. Favre’s daughter played volleyball at the school starting in 2017.
Another $2.1 million in TANF money went toward trying to develop a drug for concussions by a company in which Favre was an investor, White said. Favre asked the judge to remove him from the lawsuit, where his lawyer said the Department of Human Services — not Favre — was responsible for the “grossly improper and illegal handling of welfare funds.” Favre does not face criminal charges.
Some of the money that was meant to help low-income families was spent on luxury travel for Davis and those close to him, drug rehabilitation for a former professional wrestler and bootcamp-style gym classes for public servants.
In contrast, some welfare recipients say they have found little relief, but plenty of bureaucratic hassle from collecting modest monthly TANF payments.
“What might look like an easy distribution program is not,” said Brandi Nichols, a single mother of four with children ages 8 and younger.
Mississippi requires TANF recipients to prove they are actively looking for work, and Nichols, of Jackson, said it takes a long time to find a job.
“It’s work,” she said, “and sometimes work nullifies my ability to find a real, stable job.”
TANF is for families with at least one child under the age of 18. To qualify in MississippiFamily income must be at or below 185% of the federal poverty level. The current maximum income for a family of three is $680 per month.
The Associated Press looked at poverty statistics from 1982 through 2021, which show Mississippi was the poorest state in 19 of those 40 years and among the poorest five states for 38 years. In 2021, the poverty rate in the United States was 11.6% and Mississippi was the highest in the country, at 17.4%.
Federal statistics show a significant decrease in the number of Mississippians receiving individual aid from TANF starting in 2012, the first year that Republican Phil Bryant was governor, and continuing under current Republican Governor Tate Reeves. Bryant selected Davis to lead the Human Services Division.
During the 2012 budget year, 24,180 Mississippis received TANF. By budget year 2021, that’s down to 2,880 in a state of nearly 3 million people.
Tell Robert J. In Mississippi they do not receive it, either because their application is denied or because they give up their application.
Those eligible receive the lowest payout in the nation, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
April Jackson, a single mother with children ranging in age from a few months to 13 years old, said she received about $190 a month in TANF when she was pregnant with her third child.
Eleven years ago, the monthly payment was “buying diapers and things like that.” But she said that after she began receiving child support from the father of her eldest son, Human Services terminated her TANF benefits because she was suddenly over the income limit for assistance.
“She spoiled me so bad,” said Jackson, who lives on a shoestring budget. “I couldn’t pay my part of the bills. I couldn’t buy my kids clothes for school or the shoes they needed.”
nonpartisan Congressional Research Service In 2020, he said, New Hampshire had the highest TANF payment in the country, $862 per month for a single parent and one child. The Mississippi monthly payment for a family of two was $146.
In 2021, the state of Mississippi will increase TANF payments by $90 per month, per family—the state’s first increase since 1999—based on Anderson’s recommendation. The increase cost $2.8 million, and Republican Senator Joey Fellingan said during a Senate debate that it was all paid for with federal money, not state money.
“We’re not talking about a lot of money,” said Fellingan. “These are the poorest of the poor in our state.”
“Of course, these are all our dollars,” replied Sen. Melanie Sojourner, one of 18 lawmakers — all Republicans — who voted against the increase.
The federal government sends Mississippi about $86.5 million annually for TANF and allows states plenty of latitude in spending. Records show that Mississippi does not always spend its entire appropriation, sometimes carrying millions of dollars from year to year.
During Mississippi’s 2016 budget, the Department of Human Services sent $17.3 million in direct aid to recipients, about half of the state’s spending on TANF. During the next three years under Davis, the department reduced the amount of TANF money going to individuals.
By budget year 2019, Human Services was spending $9.6 million on direct aid, 16% of TANF funds. About $27.6 million, 46% of the money, was going to the Mississippi Community Education Center. The organization – run by Nancy New and one of her sons, Zachary New, who pleaded guilty to the charges. In the case of poor welfare spending – he said he was fighting poverty by working on parenting skills, school dropout prevention, work readiness and other programs.
For Nichols — who spoke to Democratic state lawmakers about her experience at TANF — maintaining a steady job has been difficult at times because some of her children have health issues and she has to take care of them.
She worked as a cashier, waitress, housekeeper, and certified nurse aide. But when she couldn’t find a job quickly, she had to work volunteer hours at a state Department of Human Services office as a condition of maintaining her TANF payments.
“This is not career development,” she said. “This is called being stuck in limbo.”
Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.