Mississippi Community Education Center’s downtown Jackson office, branded as Families First, was funded with millions of welfare dollars but filled its food pantry with donated food and on the day of the nonprofit founder’s arrest, the shelves were lined almost exclusively with canned corn and green beans. The center is now shuttered.

Following a massive embezzlement scandal and coping with a pandemic-ravaged economy that has left tens of thousands without work, Mississippi Department of Human Services is not retooling its federal block grant program to offer more direct assistance to families in need the way at least one neighboring state has.

The agency announced July 6 it would award $36 million in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) dollars to the same “self sufficiency”-oriented programs it has in the past.

While social distancing remains crucial to fighting the virus and the state’s job market has lost about 53,000 jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the department is offering millions to organizations that conduct after school programs, parenting classes and workforce development.

“Services have a place, but when families are not sure how they will feed their kids or pay next month’s rent, we should be prioritizing those needs. We know from the research that if those needs go unmet, kids pay a price that extends into their adult years,” LaDonna Pavetti, vice president for Family Income Support Policy for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said in an email to Mississippi Today.

The TANF subgrants Mississippi Department of Human Services awards have come under scrutiny because former director John Davis allegedly used the flexible nature of the federal program during his administration to allow millions to fly, unaccounted for, out the agency’s door. The money awarded to TANF subgrantees for social services instead paid for “increasingly absurd” things, such as luxury vehicles, religious concerts, expensive getaways, and even a speeding ticket, according to the State Auditor.

But the auditor’s office also questioned many expenditures to seemingly legitimate, longtime Human Services subgrantees because it could not identify the scope of the programs or confirm that they served needy Mississippians.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration of Children and Families, which oversees TANF, issued guidance to states in March about how they could use the block grant to help families in the time of COVID-19.

Tennessee, for example, used the TANF money it has carried over each year — called its unobligated balance — to offer more cash assistance to families impacted by the virus. Mississippi had accumulated an unused balance of TANF funds of nearly $47 million by 2016, but through large payments to the now-embattled nonprofits, it quickly spent down the pot, leaving just $8 million by 2018. The federal agency hasn’t published 2019 data yet.

“Because many affected families could have multiple needs, states and tribes may consider expanding their services and broadening their eligibility criteria,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said in its guidance to states. “…A state or tribe could assist needy families in which parents are unable to work due to contracting the disease, exposure to someone with the disease, because their children’s school or child care provider has closed, or because their own work place has closed.”

States have the freedom to issue what are called non-recurrent, short-term (NRST) benefits that do not require families to meet the same stringent income and work requirements as TANF benefits and therefore require less eligibility work for the state agency.

“With every single economic outlook predicting extended high unemployment and reduced income for the foreseeable future, we need an all hands on deck approach to help families pay for rent, food, and other basic needs and one part of that is transitioning TANF back to providing cash assistance,” John Sullivan, Senior Program Director for State and Local Policy for Enterprise Community Partners Gulf Coast, said in an email. “Analysis by Enterprise and others indicates short-term cash support is proven to reduce incidences of homelessness and housing instability, so TANF can play a crucial role in keeping families in their homes during the pandemic.”

Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, left, listens as Bob Anderson, the new state Department of Human Services director, speaks about his appointment, Wednesday, March 4, 2020, in Jackson, Miss. Anderson is an attorney who has led the Medicaid fraud division of the state attorney general’s office. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

But Human Services Director Bob Anderson, appointed to the position in March, told Mississippi Today that because of limitation in state law and current agency standards, he didn’t have the capability to quickly re-prioritize the program to provide more direct assistance to needy families.

“Those subgrants that we’re taking our RFP (Request for Proposal) proposals for are already authorized for subgrant purposes,” he said. “We can’t turn the switch today and commit those to direct assistance because we’d have to change our eligibility standards and we’d have to change the benefit amounts.”

Though he did say he plans to ask the Legislature and the governor to consider both increasing TANF’s monthly benefit amount and loosening eligibility requirements to serve more vulnerable Mississippians.

He also said the agency will ensure the TANF subgrantees fulfill their mission — as it failed to do in the past — by requiring the entities to submit demographic and outcome reports.

The agency issued a very similar Request for Proposal for TANF subgrants last October.

“These programs are further examples of our commitment to providing families in their greatest time of need with a greater chance to succeed,” Human Services Director Bob Anderson said in the July 6 press release and former Human Services Director Christopher Freeze said in the October of 2019 release. “We will continually look for ways to efficiently use resources available to assist children and families in need pursue happy and productive lives.”

States may create their own guidelines for who it deems eligible for cash assistance and use the rest of the money to meet other broad objectives: reduce the dependency of needy parents by promoting job preparation, work and marriage; prevent out-of-wedlock pregnancies; and encourage two-parent families.

In 2018, Mississippi heavily prioritized “Fatherhood and Two Parent Family Formation,” on which it spent $40 million, whereas it spent $7 million on cash assistance, according to federal reports.

After Davis retired in July of 2019, Human Services began focusing subgrants on after school programs, such as those offered by the Boys and Girls Club, parenting classes sometimes attended by people who are court-ordered there and workforce development programs.

Providing a supervised place for kids to go after school, for example, may be viewed as reducing teen pregnancy. The purpose of the parenting initiative, which overlaps with missions of the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services, “is to train, educate, encourage, and assist parents in becoming knowledgeable and assuming responsibility for the nurturing, financial, growth and developmental needs of their children,” the agency’s recent announcement for bids states.

State Auditor agents arrested Davis and five others on embezzlement charges in February. Officers for a nonprofit, Mississippi Community Education Center, that secured TANF subgrants perpetuated the largest component of the alleged scheme. Tens of millions of additional Human Services dollars that flowed through Mississippi Community Education Center and Family Resource Center of North Mississippi were similarly questioned in an audit released in May.

Bryant appointed Freeze, the FBI’s former Jackson Field Office special agent in charge, to replace Davis. With its new leader, the agency signaled that it had implemented more stringent contracting practices when it publicized a Request for Proposal for TANF subgrants in October of 2019.

In December, the agency announced it was awarding several entities with TANF subgrants for Workforce Training and Education Programs: Mississippi Community Education Center, Family Resource Center of North Mississippi, Central Mississippi Planning and Development District, South Delta Planning and Development District, Three Rivers Planning and Development District, Southern Mississippi Planning and Development District, Midtown Partners, Institutions of Higher Learning, Moore Community House, CompuRecycling Center, Inc., Jobs for MS Graduates and the Mississippi Low Income Child-Care Initiative.

It also announced awards for “Family Dynamics” programs to: Mississippi Community Education Center, Family Resource Center of North Mississippi, Rose of Sharon Church of God in Christ, Mississippi State University/Extension, Brenda’s House Family Center and Canopy Children’s Solutions.

The agency has not issued all of the funding awarded to those partners, in part because it discovered so many issues with the accounting at two of the nonprofits, Mississippi Community Education Center and Family Resource Center of North Mississippi, it froze their funding altogether. Other nonprofits could not fulfill all of their subgrant agreements due to COVID-19 restrictions, so they didn’t get paid, agency officials said.

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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.