In 1999, 23,700 struggling Mississippi families received the welfare check — a max of $170 a month for a family of three.

Today, the number of families has dropped to under 3,000, and the amount remains $170.

In those two decades, as fewer and fewer families sought or qualified for the meager benefit, Mississippi had to find other ways to spend the $86.5 million annual block grant from the federal government called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Mississippi public and nonprofit officials used the money to purchase a new volleyball stadium, a horse ranch for a famous athlete, multi-million dollar celebrity speaking engagements, high-tech virtual reality equipment, luxury vehicles, steakhouse dinners and even a speeding ticket, to name a few. They were under virtually no requirement to report this detailed spending to the federal government.

“Once you talk yourself into ignoring the laws and the regs around how to spend the money, it’s easy to talk yourself into increasingly absurd expenditures over time,” said State Auditor Shad White, whose office investigated the misspending and eventually arrested six people within a $4 million welfare fraud conspiracy nearly a year ago.

In 2019, the state spent just $5 million of the fund on cash assistance, diverted $27 million to Child Protections Services, which oversees the state’s foster care system, and spent the rest, $47 million, on other stuff, according to federal reports.

This year, a bill to increase the benefit from $170 to $260 — which closely reflects two decades of inflation — is making its way through the Legislature at the request of the new Mississippi Department of Human Services administration.

READ MORE: Senate committee approves Mississippi’s first welfare check increase since 1999.

Another measure the agency requested would ease the state’s eligibility determination process for public assistance recipients, reducing the agency manpower needed to process applications. The state has the strictest income reporting requirements in the nation, which Mississippi Department of Human Services Director Bob Anderson called an unintended consequence of the controversial Act to Restore Hope Opportunity and Prosperity for Everyone, or “HOPE Act,” lawmakers passed in 2017.

The Senate Public Health Committee advanced both pieces of legislation authored by Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, on Wednesday.

If the benefit increase is passed and signed, the policy change would result in a greater portion of Mississippi’s TANF dollars flowing into the pockets of poor Mississippians, instead of ancillary products or services that may or may not have a meaningful impact on the lives of people living in poverty.

From 2017-2019, two nonprofits that ran a program called Families First for Mississippi received $100 million in welfare money and reported helping 652 people receive a Career Ready Certificate, 94 write a resume and 72 complete a job application. They tracked no employment outcomes of the people they assisted. A representative from one of the nonprofits, Mississippi Community Education Center, previously told Mississippi Today its “main goal is getting them off TANF.”

The cash assistance portion of the program has dwindled, not necessarily because people are in greater economic circumstances; instead, advocates say, many families find that the meager benefit is not worth the myriad of paperwork and continuous compliance reviews. The increase, while seemingly nominal, may result in more people seeking the assistance who would have not otherwise.

“It’s not a ton of money. I mean, no one’s going to look at that and think anyone’s getting more than they deserve. But certainly, every little bit helps,” Fillingane said.

The welfare agency previously provided records to Mississippi Today that show between 2017 and 2018, nearly 75% of people denied TANF were turned away not because they failed to meet a specific eligibility requirement, but because their applications were either incomplete or withdrawn.

If the bill to simplify eligibility passes, Fillingane said he expects Mississippi’s welfare rolls to grow as more people have an easier time proving and staying qualified for the program.

Fillingane said he hasn’t encountered any opposition to his legislation.

Despite trying to ramp up its media visibility with new weekly virtual town halls, Mississippi Department of Human Services’ communication department has not returned nine calls, texts or emails from Mississippi Today for this or other articles.

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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.