The Mississippi State Capitol in Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

A bill pending in the state Senate would provide a $2-to-$1 match for Mississippi welfare recipients to help them create savings accounts.

“Of the 100 most un-banked communities in the country, 17 are in Mississippi,” said Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, co-author of Senate Bill 2634 along with Sen. Chris Caughman, R-Mendenhall.

Horhn said the program, similar to ones being run by a majority of other states, would be funded up to about $1 million with federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families money, with the goal of helping people get off welfare.

Horhn said it would help poor families create savings accounts, provide them with financial literacy training — which would be required for the program — and that the savings would not affect their eligibility for TANF benefits. He said it would only apply to people with net incomes of less than $10,000, and at most only about 3,700 people would qualify.

“I believe this is a wise use of resources and helping people with financial literacy and helping them to become financially stable,” Horhn said. “Forty other states are doing this, and they are seeing people being moved off the welfare rolls.”

But passage of the measure out of Senate committees brought philosophical and political debate. The bill was passed from committee with a “reverse repealer,” meaning it could not be passed into law without much more debate and changes.

“I appreciate what you’re trying to do here, but my concern is that this is a financial inducement from taxpayers’ money … federal money is still taxpayers’ money,” said Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville. “The taxpayers are being taken advantage of twice with this program. No one is saying we shouldn’t be teaching financial literacy. But this takes dollars from taxpayers and redistributes it to other taxpayers.”

Hohrn countered that TANF “is a program with a cycle of dependency, and this is a program trying to end that cycle and provide financial independence.” Sen. David Parker, R-Olive Branch, also defended the bill as worth trying, and questioned whether those philosophically opposed to spending the tax dollars pick and choose when they stand by that philosophy.

Parker also noted that Mississippi has tens of millions of dollars in unspent TANF funds.

Mississippi’s welfare program has been rocked by scandal and state and federal criminal investigations and charges into millions of dollars allegedly misspent or stolen.

READ MORE: Mississippi spent lowest welfare total ever in 2020, one year after massive scandal

The proposed savings program would provide matching funds up to $2,000 for a qualified individual and $4,000 for a family. The program would include financial literacy training for beneficiaries, and they would be limited in how they could spend the savings to only large items such as college education, purchasing a home, or purchasing a vehicle for work.

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.