JACKSON, Miss. — The State of Mississippi is leaving millions of dollars on the table that could directly benefit families in deep poverty, witnesses emphasized repeatedly during a public hearing Thursday before the Mississippi House and Senate Democratic caucuses.
LaDonna Pavetti, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, noted that the accumulated unspent Temporary Assistance For Needy Families funds could be used to assist low-income families with children in any given year.
“The important takeaway here is that Mississippi has TANF funds available to provide extra cash,” Pavetti said. “The last report, which was for 2020, (showed) that Mississippi had $47 million in unspent TANF funds. Those are funds that are just sitting (where) Mississippi can draw on them any time it wants … and in 2020, Mississippi left $31 million unspent. It’s just sitting there.”
‘Off Welfare, Not Back To Work’
The TANF hearings come after years of revelations of how federal block grant TANF funds were diverted according to the whims of well-connected private individuals and businesses.
While TANF money went to the personal enrichment of former Department of Human Services Director John Davis and former nonprofit operator Nancy New and associates, low-income families found it nearly impossible to acquire TANF assistance that could meaningfully help with daily needs. In 2017, the year Davis and New funneled $5 million in TANF funds toward a volleyball facility that retired NFL star Brett Favre wanted at his alma mater, MDHS reported that it had denied TANF funds to nearly 99% of applicants.
The unspent funds, advocates at the hearing explained, are paired with a benefits structure that is historically low and fails to address even basic needs at the current cost of living.
“Mississippi just raised their benefit. It’s now $260 (a month) for a family of three. They can barely afford the basics. If you have a child, you need diapers, you need laundry detergent, you need soap, you need toothpaste. I don’t know where the money comes from for the rent with $260, because there’s so many other things that the money needs to pay for,” Pavetti said.
Louisiana, she added, recently doubled its grant, offering a family of three nearly $500 a month. TANF funds available to families could also be automatically adjusted according to cost of living, inflating alongside the dollar to ensure a comparable amount of funding would be available each year.
Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald, southern regional director for the Children’s Defense Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based child advocacy organization, charted the history of the nation’s dwindling support for family welfare.
Time and time again, Fitzgerald explained, the false narrative of “welfare queens” abusing the public commons blocks effective assistance to needy families. “The narrative out there is that black women don’t wanna work—that black women are somehow on some kind of welfare induced vacation.”
And this narrative, she continued, was key to the transition from the Aid to Families With Deficient Children program to TANF. “The heading of that change during the Clinton administration was moving families from welfare to work. We have done a yeoman’s job of moving people off welfare. But not to work.”
The presenters agreed that there are many strategies for spending Mississippi’s TANF funds in ways that would actually help families.
Minnesota and Maine, for example, provide additional subsidies to low income families without subsidized housing. Subsidized housing is difficult to find in Mississippi, but additional TANF funds could help alleviate the high costs of housing for those with eligibility for programs like Section 8.
Mississippi could also provide one-time payments out of the TANF budget, or develop an emergency assistance program that could take effect when a family finds itself in serious circumstances, like facing eviction or escaping domestic violence.
Kyra Roby, a policy analyst with OneVoice MS, highlighted just how few impoverished Mississippians actually received direct assistance. “For every 100 families living in poverty in Mississippi, only four received TANF cash assistance.”
But any real plans to reform Mississippi’s TANF program will require a bipartisan consensus that was missing at Thursday’s hearing. Only Democrats attended the hearing, which was not available for live streaming on the main Legislature page.
Rep. Zakiya Summers, D-Jackson, one of the legislators in attendance at the meeting, told the Mississippi Free Press in a brief interview that day that GOP participation in talks on how to improve TANF have been scant to nonexistent.
“I have not heard very much from my colleagues on the other side of the aisle—even responses to the TANF scandal. The silence of it all is very concerning. The Senate established a study group that focused on women and children: they heard from a lot of experts similar things in terms of improvements to what we heard today,” Summer said.
“Still, I have not heard any meaningful policy proposals come out of that. So I’m not really sure if there will be a bipartisan effort (for TANF reform),” she concluded.
For her part, Summers said she supports direct cash benefits—and trusting families to use welfare funds according to their need. “The fact that we have left $30 million plus in the coffers without actually giving that to the families who need it the most is terrible. If we could give families their own agency … I think that’s where Mississippi will benefit the most.”