State wants to use Mississippians’ personal data to tackle poverty. What does the data already show?

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

A man pushes a cart of recyclable items to Tri-Miss Recycling near the intersection of West Woodrow Wilson Avenue and Livingston Road in West Jackson, Miss. Thursday. May 2, 2019.

In their first meeting in more than two years, officials from multiple state agencies tasked with overseeing the operations of a statewide data system containing millions of pieces of Mississippians’ personal data appointed a new chairman who promises to spell out the state’s intentions for data use — specifically how it will be used to tackle poverty.

“We now have an opportunity to generationally move families to self-sufficiency and livable wages, whatever that means, and success the way they define it, not the way I define it,” said Mississippi Department of Human Services’ Director John Davis, the new chair of the Statewide Longitudinal Data System board.

In its fifth year in operation, the longitudinal data system already has data to show that folks largely remain in poverty when they leave welfare programs. Data retrieved by Mississippi Today also shows that the state’s poverty rate was at a decade-high 24.2 percent when the state began dramatically reducing the number of people receiving public assistance in 2012 under Gov. Phil Bryant’s administration.

The poverty rate has since fallen to just under 20 percent, still the highest in the nation.

John Davis, executive director, Mississippi Department of Human Services

Nearly every state has a Statewide Longitudinal Data System — called “LifeTracks” in Mississippi — that connects residents’ otherwise confidential data from multiple state agencies in order to study the outcomes of state services over time. Shortly after forming in 2013, the board chose to house the data system at Mississippi State University’s National Strategic Planning & Analysis Research Center, known as NSPARC.

Though the board’s bylaws says it should meet three times a year, it only met twice in 2015, twice in 2016, once in 2017 and did not meet in 2018, according to the LifeTracks website. The state received criticism for its infrequent meetings from the federal Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems Grant Program, through which the state has received almost $20 million since 2009. Board members stressed during the May 2 meeting that the absence of official meetings in the last few years does not indicate a lack of governance over the data system.

In November, Mississippi Today requested specific datasets regarding the state’s anti-poverty programs from the board and was told news organizations could not access the information.

“I want exactly what you want,” Davis told Mississippi Today after the meeting. “Because as an agency head, it’s not like I’m sitting back saying, ‘Oh, I don’t want to help these people.’ My job is to help people. I don’t get paid any more not to help people.”

Data in LifeTracks is delivered to public officials or “stakeholders,” according to state statute, in the form of reports that NSPARC creates and a committee of experts, appointed by the LifeTracks board, reviews for accuracy and methodology. The board has determined that news organizations do not qualify as “stakeholders,” even though other private entities, such as Delta Health Alliance and Mississippi Energy Institute, have been able to access the information.

“John Q. Public couldn’t request that information unless they’re part of this process because the people who sit around this table own the data that goes in,” Davis said, referencing the board made up of representatives from the public agencies that offer their data to the system.

Once the analysis is finished, LifeTracks also does not make the reports public and considers these reports the possession of the requesting agency, which must determine whether they are a public record.

In its last site visit in April, the federal grantors discovered “there seems to be some confusion from the contributing partners about who owns the data and how the process works,” according to the site visit report provided at the meeting.

Though NSPARC was set to receive $400,000 in direct state dollars to manage LifeTracks through an education appropriation bill that passed each chamber, lawmakers stripped all of the funding out of the legislation at the end of the 2019 session. NSPARC has agreed to continue managing LifeTracks for the final year of its contract despite the reduction in funding.

The department of human services has requested three reports from LifeTracks in the last six years — one about folks receiving child care assistance and two regarding the workforce outcomes of residents leaving the cash assistance program Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

One final report showed that between 2013 and 2017, just over half of folks were employed within one year of leaving the TANF program and 45 percent were employed within five years. They earned, on average, $12,296 within the first year and $15,273 within five years. Both salaries fall under the poverty line for a single parent, the primary population for which the program exists.

Folks leaving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, fared slightly better: 71 percent were employed within one year and 62 percent had a job five years later. They earned an average $18,857 in the first year and $21,696 in the fifth year, under a living wage for anyone and which would put some families in poverty.

The report did not result in any specific policy or process change, but has provided a baseline for officials to use to measure the future progress of the state’s latest plan, called gen+ (generation plus), to address poverty.

It’s named “gen+” because it aims to holistically address barriers to success and connect resources for the entire family, instead of in silos.

Davis said he wants to use the data to find out if “the individuals that we’re serving are really, truly being helped.”

“Are we subjugating them to remain on the programs because we can’t help them with viable jobs? Or are we in fact helping them find livable wages?” Davis said.

He added: “I keep saying ‘livable wages,’ but that’s subjective because some people can live on $20,000 and some people can’t live on $100(,000),” Davis said.

A living wage, the amount of money someone must earn to maintain a minimum standard of living, is quantifiable when considering local costs. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology created a living wage calculator, which shows a living wage in Jackson, Miss., is $11.55 an hour for a single person, $21.80 for a single mom with one child and $24.48 for a single mom with two children.

Davis said LifeTracks can help identify ways his agency can “break those cycles of poverty in Mississippi rather than just simply continue as an agency that’s just an eligibility-based agency.”

Determining eligibility and administering assistance for needy Mississippians has and will continue to be one of human service’s main functions, but in recent years, the agency has dramatically reduced the number of families it serves through TANF, which includes the work support component of the program.

Welfare reform in 1996 reduced the number of Mississippi families receiving traditional basic assistance by more than two-thirds, from more than 52,000 to about 15,000, in less than five years. The rolls then started to climb through the early 2000s until dropping and stabilizing to around 11,500 families between 2008 and 2012.

After Bryant took office in 2012, the rolls began to decline again. The program now serves less than 4,500 families. The assistance touches less than 4 percent of children living in poverty in the state.

On its gen+ web page, the department of human services shares a success story from one of its clients, Andrea, a single mother with two children. Andrea was working less than part-time and going to school at night when she sought help from the Hinds County DHS office. She started receiving public assistance and entered the corresponding work programs. The website says she got a job at MDHS as a clerk and was even promoted to senior typist.

That senior position starts at about $18,550, or about $8.90 an hour, well under the federal poverty line for a single mother with two children. The state employs almost 1,500 people in positions with starting salaries under $20,000, according to records from the Mississippi State Personnel Board.

“I am so grateful for the opportunities MDHS and the programs they offer have given me,” she’s quoted on the website as saying.

Ultimately, evaluating the outcomes of gen+ and Mississippi’s other programs designed to help lift people out of poverty is a work in progress, said human services’ program director Jacob Black. The state is still working to figure out how to gather outcome data from the many private nonprofit partners to which it provides grants and who are not participating in the LifeTracks system. The agency faces a challenge connecting data from multiple sources in potentially incompatible formats.

Families First for Mississippi, the primary third-party administrator of the gen+ plan, compiles in its annual reports many output measurements — how many people participated in and completed their various programs, such as high school diploma courses, parenting, life-skills and job readiness. But it does not say whether its efforts resulted in people finding a job or a livable wage.

Family Resource Center of Northeast Mississippi and Mississippi Community Education Center, who operate Families First, received $27.6 million, or over 25 percent of annual Temporary Assistance for Needy Families dollars in 2018, according to a list of sub grant costs the agency provided to Mississippi Today. Black said the organization is in the process of implementing a system for tracking the progress of its clients, which began in September.

Mimmo Parisi, former director of NSPARC, the agency tasked with analyzing Families First data, told Mississippi Today in November that the organization did not have a system to collect the data but that they were “working on it.”

Additionally, Families First cannot mandate their clients submit personal information.

“They’re scrambling because they’re serving all these people but they don’t know how to collect data,” Parisi said. “They’re really scrambling to find a way to show the effectiveness of what they’re doing.”

Parisi also said it takes five years to really see the impact of these kinds of programs and it’s not fair to expect Families First to have the data this quickly. “They’re doing their very best to collect the data,” he said.