The roughly 1,500 families receiving welfare benefits in Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation, will see a $1,000 boost just in time for the holiday season.

Though more than 200,000 families live in poverty in Mississippi, less than 1% of them actually receive the government benefit because of strict rules around who receives cash assistance.

The monthly check is relatively low — just $260 for a family of three — so the state only spends about 5% of the $86.5 million it receives for welfare each year on cash assistance for low-income families.

The federal fund that supplies cash welfare, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), was also the target of a massive alleged theft scheme and broad mismanagement in recent years. Four people arrested in February of 2020, including the former director of Mississippi Department of Human Services, which administers the aid, still await trial in what official have called the largest public embezzlement case in state history. Two others have pleaded guilty.

The current agency director Bob Anderson says he’s improving internal controls to make sure that the agency’s funds are used to help people and not wasted.

The agency started sending out the one-time $1,000 boost to TANF recipients on Dec. 17 and the money should reach each family’s Way2Go debit card by Christmas. The additional money came from the Pandemic Emergency Assistance Fund, a $4.7 million appropriation from the federal American Rescue Plan Act authorized last March. The additional payments this month total about $1.5 million.

In a release, Mississippi Department of Human Services announced that families who become newly eligible for TANF in 2022 may be able to receive the additional $1,000 as long as funds are still available. TANF has a five-year maximum time limit.

“We are grateful for the opportunity to provide more cash assistance to needy Mississippi families,” Anderson said in a release. “We know that many families are still struggling to meet their basic needs, and this assistance will help them this holiday season.”

Anderson successfully requested legislation during the 2021 session to increase the amount of TANF payments, which hadn’t been increased in two decades and were the lowest of any state, by $90.

His agency also recently changed an internal policy that allows parents who receive TANF to keep the first $100 of their child support payments, whereas before the state would intercept the funds to pay itself back for the cash assistance it administered.

But even with the new administration, fewer and fewer Mississippians are receiving the payments as the welfare rolls have been steadily dropping for years. In 2019, the number of low-income families receiving the aid each month ranged from about 2,900 to just over 4,000. In 2021, the number was as low as 1,549.

Mississippians may apply for TANF here. People who receive notice of their eligibility but do not receive the additional payment this week should contact their local county DHS office, the department said in its release.

Gov. Tate Reeves also recently announced that all state-employed law enforcement officers would receive a one-time $1,000 bonus. The payments, funded by COVID-19 relief funds, are classified as hazard pay.

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Anna Wolfe, a native of Tacoma, Wa., is an investigative reporter writing about poverty and economic justice. Before joining the staff at Mississippi Today in September of 2018, Anna worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide daily newspaper. She also worked as an investigative reporter for the Center for Public Integrity and Jackson Free Press, the capital city’s alternative newsweekly. Anna has received national recognition for her work, including the 2021 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, the 2021 Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the 2021 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the 2020 Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award and the February 2020 Sidney Award for reporting on Mississippi’s debtors prisons. She received the National Press Foundation’s 2020 Poverty and Inequality Award. She also received first place in the regional Green Eyeshade Awards in 2021 for Public Service in Online Journalism and 2020 for Business Reporting, and the local Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism in 2019 and 2018 for reporting on unfair medical billing practices and hunger in the Mississippi Delta.