Years before Mississippi’s welfare scandal broke, one statistic provided a foreshadowing: The state had approved just 1.5% of applications for cash welfare in 2016.
In the month of April of 2017, when the figure hit the local news, the Mississippi Department of Human Services approved just five out of 824 applications, or 0.06%, for assistance under the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program.
Inexplicably, the department’s TANF application approval rate immediately increased to around 25% after that. But the caseload of people on the program continued to decline. In 2018, at the height of the scandal, Mississippi spent $113 million in federal TANF funds – its annual allotment of $86.5 million plus unspent funds from past years – and just 5% went to cash assistance for needy families. That left over $100 million in virtually free money for officials to spend.
But Mississippi isn’t the only state that turns away most applicants for TANF. Texas, for example, is approving less than 5% of people applying for the aid, according to federal data analyzed by Mississippi Today.
Nationally, only about 21% of families living in poverty received cash welfare in 2020. In Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana, that figure is 4%.
The current assistance program, born out of welfare reform in the 1990s, replaced the former Aid to Families with Dependent Children entitlement program with a block grant that allows states broad flexibility to spend the money as they wish. The assistance program became a work program. The main metric states would be required to track within the program was the percentage of recipients meeting work requirements.
Since then, the number of poor families that receive what is commonly referred to as the “welfare check” has fallen nationally from a monthly average of about 4.5 million families in 1996 to less than 800,000 in 2022. In Mississippi, the number fell from nearly 48,000 families to about 1,600.
Instead, states spend the bulk of the federal money, about 80% of the $16.6 billion nationally in 2020, on other services such as workforce training activities ($2.6 billion), child care ($1.4 billion), child welfare ($1.2 billion), out-of-wedlock pregnancy prevention ($129 million), and fatherhood programs ($114 million).
But there is no federal repository of data showing which organizations actually receive the money to perform these functions, what specific programs they offer, how they spend the money, who they help and what outcomes they achieve. In the case of Mississippi, the state didn’t compile this information either.
The open-ended program resulted in one of the biggest public fraud scandals in Mississippi history under the administration of former Gov. Phil Bryant, whose office oversaw the welfare department’s strategy and goals. State and nonprofit officials used tens of millions in federal funds that were supposed to assist very poor families — or at least offer opportunities to families to help them avoid falling into poverty — to purchase property, lavish their friends and family, or to prop up programs that had little to do with alleviating poverty. Meanwhile, the state divested from the legacy public assistance programs, which were serving fewer and fewer people.
Welfare expenditures inspired by NFL legend Brett Favre — including a $1.1 million advertising contract, $5 million in payments towards the construction of a volleyball stadium and $2 million for a pharmaceutical venture he was investing in — have made national headlines.
Millions in total also went to other purposes, including pro football players and wrestlers, lobbyists, a virtual reality academy, expensive PR campaigns and a conservative talk radio station.
Mississippi characterized most of these purchases to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as "Work Supports" or "Fatherhood and Two Parent Family Formation," but the federal government did not require the state to report virtually anything more than that.
The state auditor, who is responsible for annually auditing state agencies that spend federal funds, uncovered the purchases, but only after a Mississippi Department of Human Services employee took a small tip of suspected fraud related to the former welfare director and the wrestlers to Bryant, who turned that over to the auditor.
Today, Mississippi’s use of TANF funds is not totally clear. Of the $86.5 million it receives from the federal government each year, just $3.7 million went to direct cash assistance in 2020, the latest federal financial data available. In the two years since the scandal broke, TANF caseloads continued to decline to a low of 166 adults and 2,067 children in January of 2022. They’ve grown slightly since then, but nowhere near the roughly 6,700 adults and 17,500 children on the program 10 years ago in 2012, and even further from the roughly 33,000 adults and 96,000 children on the program in 1996.
-- Article credit to Anna Wolfe of Mississippi Today --