John Davis, outgoing director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services

John Davis, the director of Mississippi Department of Human Services, who started there as a social worker and worked his way up to lead the department, will retire after 28 years with the agency, MDHS announced on Twitter Monday.

Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Davis to head the agency following former director Ricky Berry’s resignation in 2016. Since, the agency has undergone a number of changes as well as a federal investigation into how it reports its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) error rates. Before his appointment, Davis had been deputy administrator for programs, office director for the division of economic assistance and director of the Lincoln County Department of Human Services.

“I appreciate John Davis’ twenty-eight years of service to the Department of Human Services. John has dedicated his life to serving others and has been a tremendous advocate for Mississippi’s children and families. We will begin a search for a new Executive Director immediately,” Bryant said in a release.

Most recently, the department changed it’s eligibility criteria for SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, to comply with a state law passed during the 2019 session allowing people with past felony drug convictions to be eligible for the benefit. In July, the department began automatically issuing benefits to such people who are part of a household already receiving SNAP.

Among Davis’ accomplishments — awards for accuracy and stewardship within SNAP — the release cites his implementation of mandatory work requirements within the food assistance program.

In May, the board for Mississippi’s Statewide Longitudinal Data System (SLDS), which collects and connects data on Mississippi citizens from various state agencies, nominated Davis chairman. He announced plans to use the data to develop solutions for people living in poverty. The state plan he helped develop for the agency is called “gen plus” and aims to address the needs of children, parents and grandparents simultaneously.

“Over the years what my goal has been is to really, truly, holistically look at a family to help them move to self sufficiency and that sounds really good. You know, it’s easy for somebody to say, ‘Oh, well you should be doing this or give them that.’ Over the years, we’ve seen it go in all different directions,” Davis told Mississippi Today in May.

“But we have been really concerted in the past three to four years of looking from a generational plus — or gen plus — perspective to say it’s not good enough just to find somebody a job. How do we help the family holistically, say, is there education requirements? Is there food requirements? Is there clothing requirements? What are the barriers? Are there soft skill requirements? So we’ve been able to do that by looking at the family as a whole.”

“But we need better data, which comes through the SLDS, to really do the good job,” he said. “I think SLDS is our best chance in the state of Mississippi of getting to the end goal of helping people and families holistically.”

In addition to SNAP, the department of human services also administers Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, known as welfare, and the Child Care Development Fund child care vouchers. It oversees child care centers and child support enforcement. The department came under fire in 2017 after it reported only approving 1.4 percent of applicants for TANF in 2016.

According to a Mississippi Today analysis of public records, the agency approved roughly one-fourth of applicants in the following two years, though the overall caseload continues to drop steadily. The program is serving less than 7 percent of families living below the poverty line.

In recent years, the department has focused on coordinating services as part of the state’s Workforce Opportunity Investment Act plan to the federal government. That has resulted in 30 “one-stop shops” operated by Families First of Mississippi, a nonprofit that offers intangible resources like resume writing or parenting classes, cropping up across the state. The department of human services grants a portion of its roughly $110 million TANF funds to Families First to run the centers.

The department is also still implementing changes to its child care center quality rating, which will allow centers designated a “comprehensive” center to receive larger voucher reimbursements from the state.

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Anna Wolfe is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who covers inequity and corruption in government safety net programs, nonprofit service providers and institutions affecting the marginalized. She began reporting for Mississippi Today in 2018, after she approached the editor with the idea of starting a poverty beat, the first of its kind in the state. Wolfe has received national recognition for her years-long coverage of Mississippi’s welfare program, in which she exposed new details about how officials funneled tens of millions of federal public assistance funds away from needy families and instead to their friends, families and the pet projects of famous athletes. Since joining Mississippi Today, she has received several national honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, the Livingston Award, two Goldsmith Prizes for Investigative Reporting, the Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the Sacred Cat Award, the Nellie Bly Award, the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, the Sidney Award, the National Press Foundation’s Poverty and Inequality Award and others. Previously, Wolfe worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide newspaper, where she covered city hall, health care, and wrote stories about hunger and medical billing, earning the Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism two years in a row. Born and raised on the Puget Sound in Washington State, Wolfe moved to Mississippi in 2012 to attend Mississippi State University, where she currently serves on the Digital Journalism Advisory Board. She has lived in Jackson, Mississippi since graduating in 2014.