Mississippi has enacted a policy that will allow low-income single parents to keep more money in their pockets. Credit: FILE: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today

Mississippi has enacted a policy that will allow low-income single parents to keep more money in their pockets.

To qualify for most public assistance programs in Mississippi, single parents, usually women, must sue their kids’ non-custodial parent for child support payments.

But if they have received cash assistance through a federal program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the state seizes those child support dollars to pay itself back for providing welfare.

That means some moms never see the child support money. And the fathers are simply paying into state coffers.

But in November, Mississippi will start allowing a child support “pass-through” of $100, according to a report by the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review released Wednesday. It’s a policy the agency was able to enact itself without legislative approval.

The new pass-through means a separated parent who has been on welfare will receive the first $100 in child support that comes in each month before the state takes the rest. Additionally, the state will not count the $100 as income, so it shouldn’t affect the parent’s eligibility for public assistance.

Mississippi will join 28 other states that allow a pass-through, according to a 2020 analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

This policy change was one of eight expert suggestions Mississippi Today published in its investigative series on the state’s child support system last January.

This is also the state’s second major policy change related to the TANF program after the State Auditor found in 2020 that the state welfare agency had misspent tens of millions of these federal funds.

The alleged corruption occurred under the leadership of agency director John Davis, who took his orders from Gov. Phil Bryant. Davis is awaiting trial in what officials are calling the largest public embezzlement scheme in state history and officials have not accused Bryant of wrongdoing.

Mississippi public and nonprofit officials used the money on purchases such as 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.

The state is allowed to choose how much of the federal block grant to spend on cash payments to poor families or on other social programs. And it was under virtually no requirement to report this detailed spending to the federal government.

The state has offered cash assistance to fewer and fewer Mississippians over the last decade. That, coupled with the low monthly benefit amount of $170 for a family of three, meant that the state was spending just a fraction of its funding, as low as 5%, on cash assistance.

In the 2021 session, lawmakers passed a bill to increase the cash benefit by $90, which closely reflects two decades of inflation. It was the first time the state raised the benefit in over 20 years.

For over 50 years, Mississippi had offered the lowest benefit of any state. At the new rate of $260-a-month for a family of three, the state no longer ranks last in this metric. It ranks fourth to last. Only Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana have lower benefits.

Last year, Mississippi Today spoke with eight safety net policy or government administration experts and compiled a list of policy changes Mississippi could make to improve the child support system for its citizens. In addition to creating a “pass-through,” they recommended the state:

  • Remove the requirement that separated moms to legally pursue their child’s father for support in order to qualify for public assistance. Mississippi is one of only seven states that impose this requirement within the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
  • Strengthen “ability to pay” measurements to ensure Mississippi is not punishing non-custodial parents for being poor.
  • Halt child support debts from accruing while a non-custodial parent is incarcerated.
  • Make the process of modifying child support orders easier, so the amount a non-custodial parent must pay can reflect their changing work circumstances.
  • Improve parent access to information about their case by creating an online portal.
  • Instead of assuming a minimum wage when calculating child support for a parent who does not have a job, take into account their realistic employability.
  • Make the process of applying easier, such as allowing electronic signatures.

Another piece of piece of legislation the welfare agency requested during the 2021 session would have eased the state’s eligibility determination process for public assistance recipients, reducing the agency manpower needed to process applications. Records previously obtained by Mississippi Today show that 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, an indicator of the cumbersome process.

The legislation passed the Senate but died in committee in the House.

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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.