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Opinion The hidden lesson from Mississippi’s welfare fraud scandal

Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens, left, and Mississippi State Auditor Shad White speak with the media last week outside the Hinds County Courthouse in Jackson, Miss., and discuss the case of John Davis, former director of Mississippi's welfare agency, who pleaded guilty to federal and state charges in a conspiracy to misspend tens of millions of dollars that were intended to help needy families. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

Nearly 1 in 5 people live in poverty in Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation. So it’s unpardonable that state officials largely failed to support low-income families, and instead doled out tens of millions in welfare funding to promote well-heeled interests. The sprawling scandal has embroiled a number of government and nonprofit leaders — as well as Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre.

Mr. Favre, who earned nearly $140 million from his playing career alone, has been accused of playing a role in the misappropriation of $8 million from a program for needy families. Among other activities under scrutiny, he reportedly pressed state officials for millions to help construct a stadium at the University of Southern Mississippi, where his daughter played volleyball. He does not face criminal charges and has denied wrongdoing. But Mr. Favre’s case is just one part of a larger story. Six people have been charged in connection with the misallocated funds, at least four of whom have pleaded guilty. Mississippi has also filed a civil suit against 38 people and organizations to recoup misspent funds.

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Editorial Board coverage on inequality and poverty
The wealth gap in the United States is growing. In “Sharing the Wealth,” a project published in 2021, the Editorial Board looked at wealth inequality — and ways to fix it.
Globally, hundreds of millions of people came out of poverty between 2006 and 2016 — but the covid-19 pandemic set back that progress. Expanded and sustained international cooperation is integral to eradicating poverty around the world, the Editorial Board has argued.
The country’s welfare programs help millions of people — but are also often complex, unresponsive and lack oversight. As a recent, sprawling scandal in Mississippi demonstrates, this can lead to inefficiencies — and even grift.
In more welcome news, child poverty rates plummeted between 1993 and 2019. But there is more work to be done — and one of the most powerful tools to lift children out of poverty is a generous child tax credit. The Editorial Board has called on Congress to beef it up.

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The sordid saga should do more than tarnish reputations. It should also cast a spotlight on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, where much of the money came from. Established to support poor families, it has too often degenerated into an opaque slush fund for states.

TANF was created as part of the 1996 welfare reform package, replacing a cash aid program with block grants to states to use at their discretion. Though child poverty rates have declined since the reform package, TANF has underperformed: Studies have shown that it did not significantly increase recipients’ income levels, and a recent analysis from the New York Times and research group Child Trends concluded that it was the “rare program whose anti-poverty effect seemingly declined.”

The program’s diminishing reach stems, in part, from complex work and eligibility requirements and a shrinking budget in real terms. But TANF has also been plagued by a lack of oversight and clear standards. States are allowed to use the grants for several purposes, including promoting “two-parent families” and reducing “out-of-wedlock pregnancies.” That has led to states slashing cash assistance to poor families and instead investing in tangential initiatives, such as early child care and college scholarships. Some have even used TANF dollars to fund antiabortion centers and pro-marriage campaigns. As we have seen in Mississippi, this flexible framework offers ample opportunity for grift.

The Post's View: One way to stamp out child poverty

TANF would clearly benefit from more oversight and accountability. The Department of Health and Human Services could, for example, define “needy” families and set standards for what types of programs meet the stated goals. Congress should also consider ways to update the program, which is based on archaic ideas about welfare. That process could involve narrowing its goals, bolstering federal reporting requirements and finding ways to ensure funds reach the neediest households.

More broadly, it is time for deeper thinking about the country’s welfare programs, many of which are outdated, unresponsive and labyrinthine. Evidence, as the Editorial Board has noted, suggests that a robust, extended child tax credit could do much more to help the neediest families. That — not poorly supervised funding to states — should be the centerpiece of whatever anti-poverty effort comes next.

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Editorial Page Editor David Shipley, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (elections, the White House, Congress, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).

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