Welfare scandal sharpens contrasts in long-poor Mississippi

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) – In Mississippi, where elected officials have a long history of praising self-sufficiency and criticizing federal antipoverty programsA poverty report has revealed how millions of dollars have been given to the rich and powerful – including professional athletes – instead of helping the country’s poorest people.

The abuse of health care money is exacerbated by Nsombi Lambright-Haynes, executive director of One Voice, a nonprofit organization that works to help the economically vulnerable in Mississippi.

“It’s shameful and disgusting, especially when we live in a country where we hear conversations every year about poor people who are in need and poor and lazy and just need to get up and go to work,” he said.

The government has been among the poorest in the US for decades, but only a small portion of its health care spending has gone directly to families. Instead, the Mississippi Department of Human Services allowed well-connected individuals to spend millions of dollars on health care from 2016 to 2019, according to the state auditor and state and federal attorneys.

Former Human Services Director John Davis pleaded guilty in the state’s largest corruption scandal..

The show has shut down celebrities, including retired NFL player Brett Favre.who is one of more than a dozen people charged in a lawsuit filed by the director of Human Services to try to recover some of the money that was lost during Davis’ administration.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families has funded the pets of the wealthy, including a $5 million volleyball court that Favre sponsored. at his alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi, Mississippi Auditor Shad White said. Favre’s daughter has played volleyball at school since 2017.

Another $2.1 million in TANF money went to drug trials with a company in which Favre was an investor, White said. Favre has asked the judge to remove him from the case, and his attorney contends that the Department of Human Services — not Favre — is responsible for the “improper and illegal use of welfare funds.” Favre is not facing charges.

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Some of the money, which was intended to help low-income families, was spent on luxury travel for Davis and those close to him, drug rehabilitation for ex-athletes and boot camps for government officials.

In contrast, some recipients say they got little relief but more freedom from collecting less monthly TANF money.

Brandy Nichols, a single mother of four children ages 8 and under, said: “What may seem easy to share with others is not.

Mississippi requires TANF recipients to prove they are looking for work and Nichols, Jackson said the job search process takes time.

“It’s work, and sometimes work prevents me from finding a real, stable job,” he said.

TANF is for families with one child under the age of 18. To qualify in Mississippi, household income must be at or below 185% of the federal poverty level. The current limit for a family of three is $680 per month.

The Associated Press analyzed poverty statistics from 1982 to 2021, showing that Mississippi was the poorest state in 19 of those 40 years and in the top five poorest for 38 years. In 2021, the US poverty rate was 11.6% and Mississippi had the highest in the nation, 17.4%.

Federal statistics show a sharp decline in the number of Mississippians receiving individual TANF assistance since 2012, the first year Republican Phil Bryant was governor, and continued under Republican Gov. Father Reeves. Bryant appointed Davis to lead the Department of Human Services.

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In the 2012 budget year, 24,180 Mississippians received TANF. By the 2021 budget year, it had dropped to 2,880 in a state of about 3 million people.

Robert G. “Bob” Anderson, the director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, told Democratic state officials in October that about 90% of TANF applicants. in Mississippi they do not receive it, either because their applications are rejected or because they abandon their applications.

Those who qualify receive the lowest income in the country, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

April Jackson, a single mother with children between the ages of a few months and 13, said she received $190 a month in TANF when she was pregnant with her third child.

Eleven years ago, the monthly payment “bought diapers and things like that.” But she said that after she began receiving child support from her oldest son’s father, Human Services terminated her TANF benefits because she suddenly exceeded the benefit limit.

“It really messed me up,” said Jackson, who lives on a shoestring budget. “I couldn’t pay my share of the bills. I couldn’t buy my children school clothes or the shoes they needed.”

The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service said in 2020, New Hampshire had the highest TANF payment in the country, $862 per month for a single parent with one child. The monthly wage in Mississippi for a family of two was $146.

In 2021, Mississippi expanded its TANF payments and $90 per month, per family — the first state increase since 1999 — on Anderson’s proposal. The increase cost $2.8 million, and Sen. Republican Joey Filingane said during the Senate hearing that everything was paid for with federal money, not state money.

“We are not talking about a lot of money,” Filingane said. “These are the poorest in our state.”

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“Of course, these are all our dollars,” replied Sen. Melanie Sojourner, one of the 18 lawmakers – all Republicans – who voted for the extension.

The state sends Mississippi about $86.5 million a year in TANF and allows states to spend more. Records show that Mississippi does not spend all of its money, sometimes pocketing millions of dollars each year.

In Mississippi’s 2016 budget year, the Department of Human Services sent $17.3 million in aid directly to recipients, about half of the state’s TANF funds. In the next three years under Davis, the department reduced TANF payments to the public.

As of the 2019 budget year, Human Services spent $9.6 million in direct assistance, 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. on the issue of poor service delivery – it said it is fighting poverty through child-rearing skills, drop-out prevention, job preparation and other programs.

For Nichols — who spoke to Democratic state lawmakers about her experience on TANF — maintaining a steady job has been difficult at times because some of her children are sick and she has to care for them.

She works as a cashier, waitress, housekeeper and registered nurse’s aide. But when she couldn’t find a job quickly, she volunteered at a state Department of Human Services office as a way to save TANF money.

“That’s not job growth,” he said. “That’s called being in limbo.”


Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.


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