Mississippi welfare scandal sees aid to the poor cut nearly 90% as Brett Favre gains access

In Mississippi, where elected officials have a long history of self-aggrandizement and condemnation federal antipoverty programsA welfare scandal has revealed how millions of dollars are being funneled to the rich and powerful — including pro athletes — instead of helping some of the nation’s neediest people.

The misuse of welfare money rankles Nsombi Lambright-Haynes, executive director of One Voice, a nonprofit that works to help economically vulnerable communities in Mississippi.

“It’s shameful and disgusting, especially when we’re a state where we hear talk every year about the poor not needing resources and the poor being lazy and just having to get up to work,” he said.

The state has ranked among the poorest in the US for decades, but only a tiny fraction of its federal welfare money goes directly to helping families. Instead, the Mississippi Department of Human Services allowed well-connected people to walk away from tens of millions of dollars in welfare from 2016 to 2019, according to the state auditor and state and federal prosecutors.

Former Human Services Director John Davis pleaded guilty to charges tied to misappropriating state welfare. biggest case of public corruption.

The scandal has ensnared high-profile figures, including retired NFL quarterback Brett Favrewho is one of more than three dozen defendants in a civil suit filed 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 Needy Families money helps fund projects for the wealthy, including $5 million for a volleyball arena supported by Favre at his alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi, Mississippi Auditor Shad White said. Favre’s daughter has been playing volleyball at the school since 2017.

Another $2.1 million in TANF money went toward trying to develop a concussion drug at a company in which Favre was an investor, White said. Favre asked a judge he was dismissed from the lawsuit, with his attorney arguing that the Department of Human Services – not Favre – was responsible for the “grossly improper and unlawful handling of welfare funds.” Favre is not facing criminal charges.

Some of the money meant to help low-income families was spent on luxury travel for Davis and people close to him, drug rehab for a former pro wrestler and boot camp-style classes. in the gym for public officials.

In contrast, some welfare recipients say they experience few but many bureaucratic headaches from collecting modest monthly TANF payments.

“What seems like a simple handout program is not,” said Brandy Nichols, a single mother of four children ages 8 and younger.

Mississippi requires TANF recipients to prove they are actively looking for work and Nichols, of Jackson, said the job search can be time-consuming.

“It’s work, and sometimes work takes away my ability to find real, stable work,” he said.

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

The Associated Press researched poverty statistics for 1982 to 2021, showing that Mississippi was the poorest state in 19 of 40 years and among the five poorest in 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 dramatic decline in the number of Mississippi residents receiving individual TANF assistance beginning in 2012, the first year Republican Phil Bryant became governor, and continuing through the term of current Republican Gov. Tate Reeves. Bryant chose Davis to head the Department of Human Services.

During the 2012 budget year, 24,180 Mississippians received TANF. In the 2021 budget year, that drops to 2,880 in a state with nearly 3 million residents.

Robert G. “Bob” Anderson, the current Mississippi Department of Human Services executive director, told Democratic state lawmakers in October that about 90% of people who apply for TANF in Mississippi did not receive it, either because their applications were denied or because they abandoned their applications.

Those who qualify get the lowest payments in the country, 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 “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 income limit for assistance.

“It really bothered me,” said Jackson, who lives on a tight budget. “I haven’t been able to pay my share of the bills. I can’t buy my children clothes for school or the shoes they need.”

The non-partisan Congressional Research Service said that in 2020, New Hampshire will have the highest TANF payments in the nation, $862 a month for a single parent and one child. The monthly payment in Mississippi for a family of two is $146.

In 2021, Mississippi increased its TANF payments by $90 per month, per family — the state’s first increase since 1999 — on Anderson’s recommendation. The increase cost $2.8 million, and Republican Sen. Joey Fillingane said during a Senate debate that all of this was paid for with federal money, not state money.

“We’re not talking about a lot of money,” Fillingane said. “This is the poorest of the poor in our state.”

“Of course, that’s 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 a year for TANF and allows states wide discretion in spending. Records show Mississippi doesn’t always spend its full allocation, sometimes bringing in millions of dollars each year.

During Mississippi’s 2016 budget year, the Department of Human Services sent $17.3 million in direct aid to recipients, about half of the state’s TANF spending. During the next three years under Davis, the department reduced the amount of TANF money that went to individuals.

In the 2019 budget year, Human Services spent $9.6 million in direct assistance, 16% of TANF money. About $27.6 million, 46% of the money, will go to the Mississippi Community Education Center. The organization – run by Nancy New and one of her sons, Zachary New, who has pleaded guilty to state charges in the case of welfare misspending — says it fights poverty by working on parenting skills, avoiding school dropouts, job readiness and other programs.

For Nichols — who spoke to Democratic state lawmakers about her TANF experience — keeping steady work was difficult at times because some of her children had health problems and she had to care for them.

She worked as a cashier, waitress, housekeeper and certified nurse assistant. But if she can’t find a job quickly, she must work volunteer hours at a state Department of Human Services office as a condition of keeping TANF payments.

“That’s not career-enhancing,” he said. “That’s called being stuck in limbo.”

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