In July we asked readers what questions they had about the Mississippi welfare scandal. Author of The Backchannel and Mississippi Today’s poverty reporter Anna Wolfe answered five questions. Find answers to your questions and a recap of the scandal below.

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Q: What do things look like on the ground for those actually providing social services to families in MS? What has been the community level impact of the misuse of funds?

A: There were a lot of organizations who used to receive TANF grants, like for after school programs, tutoring, parenting classes, that kind of thing, who are not receiving them anymore. So there are fewer of these services within the program, but it just depends on if they were able to fill the gaps with other funding sources.

When this is really tragic is when a parent has their kids taken away, they may be required to go to parenting classes or anger management, to actually get their kids back. And if there aren’t any classes available in their area, or to an area where they can get transportation to, they won’t be able to meet that court requirement. I visited Families First–this is the center through which most of the welfare misspending occurred, that Nancy New ran. I visited periodically after the arrests and the first time I went when they were closed, there was a “sorry we’re closed” sign on the door and I went out to the parking lot where I saw this woman sort of outside of her friends vehicle and she was kind of mad and yelling and I asked her what was going on and she told me she came to the center that day to go to class so she could get her kids back and no one had told her they had closed. I asked her what she was going to do and she had no idea and then she got in her friend’s car and drove away. I actually don’t know what happened to her.

This is just an example of how high stakes this stuff can be–it literally meant the difference between her getting her kids back or not.

Q: I’m curious how the low percentage of applicants receiving welfare funds during this scandal compares to previous years? Was it the trend of the agency to approve less than 10% of applicants for assistance prior to the scandal?

A: This is a good question and I actually have a graph for this that I made a while ago.

Back in 2017, there was a big story in the newspaper about how the state had denied almost 99% of people applying for welfare the previous year. What those stories didn’t do a good job of explaining was how we got here. It kind of made it seem like 2016 was an outlier year when in reality, the precipitous drop in approved TANF cases happened in 2010, before Phil Bryant was governor. This is assuming the numbers MDHS reported are correct. From 2008, which is the earliest data we could retrieve from the federal government, to 2010, we were receiving between 1,800 and 3,000 TANF applications each month and approving between 600 to 1,200 of them. So between 20-30%.

In 2010, actually between May and July 2010, approved applications significantly from 875 one month to 48 the next, and then the number just stayed down. In one month in 2017 the agency approved just 5 applications. And then in May of 2017, the month after that story came out, the number of approved applications started to tick back up dramatically to around 400.

What’s interesting is the number of people on the program and amount we spent on TANF cash assistance didn’t vary to that degree in those years. The rolls were always steadily decreasing, as you can see in the chart, but you didn’t see that precipitous drop of application approvals reflected in the caseload or actual spending of cash assistance — and that’s never been explained to me. I’ve tried to ask the department about this as many different ways as I could but they never provided an answer.

Q: How does the state plan to repair the damage to the system now that Reeves is determined to ignore it, and funnel money into the adoption centers, which we know are church oriented, and as such is more of the same: taking funds from MS responsibilities and putting it into private hands the Governor favors?

A: The person asking this is making the connection between the welfare scandal, and the way that the money in this scandal was funneled through private nonprofits, and the current emphasis on private crisis pregnancy centers, which the Republican leadership is putting a lot of faith in now following the fall of Roe v Wade. In a lot of states where abortion has now been outlawed, the government is turning to these private centers to fill in the gaps of services for women, low-income women, who become pregnant and don’t have a lot of options. Generally, crisis pregnancy centers are these entities that advertise services for pregnant women, but they’re not medical facilities, so they don’t provide care, and they also don’t have any structured programs so while they might be able to give you some diapers or a car seat, they’re mostly a referral service—which as this commenter recognized, sounds a lot like Families First for Mississippi right?

Shad White and I used to have conversations about this all the time, and the truth is: Nonprofits are the wild wild west in Mississippi. There isn’t really an aggressive oversight agency tasked with holding nonprofits accountable. Nonprofits do have to file a document called a 990 with the IRS and they have to do annual audits, but only if they pull over a certain dollar amount.

I was looking into a nonprofit, a rehab facility, a few months ago, this is one that received welfare money, and I couldn’t find out anything about it. It’s most recent 990s weren’t available online so I called the chair of the board. This guy is a well known attorney in state government. I kept telling him I wanted a copy of their 990 and he finally told me he didn’t know what I was talking about; he didn’t know what a 990 was. I was baffled by that. I think it just shows how willy nilly some operations are. These are public documents so if you ask them for it, they have to give it to you. He still hasn’t given it to me.

I say this to say, nonprofits are something we all need to be really vigilant about because as soon as you think, ‘Oh someone else is surely making sure they’re do everything right’ that’s exactly when they’re probably not looking.

And the crisis pregnancy centers are going to be no exception for us.

Q: Will these families receive any backpay for this betrayal?

A: There aren’t poor families who are owed this money because they were either denied after being found ineligible for the cash benefit or they didn’t apply, so there’s no one to pay back. Of course, HHS is expected to eventually ask the state to pay back the money, which would go back into the TANF fund. DHS hasn’t been super explanatory about how the program is operating now, but from the last time I looked at the federal data it does look like the cash assistance side of the program is serving more people than it was. The data is really outdated, but I think I’ll be able to finally do a more current-day, post-scandal analysis of the program soon.

Q: Scandal aside, TANF fails to empower the poor and guide them out of poverty. It’s clear the state government and relevant political players oppose welfare, but how do Mississippians feel about common sense measures to mitigate poverty? Are we as a majority opposed or in favor of aid like direct cash payments, subsidized nutritious meals, housing vouchers, etc.?

A: It’s funny after covering all of this blatant misuse, I heard more people, maybe conservatively leaning people, talk about how the money should have gone to poor people, who I would not have expected to say that before. I’m talking about people who think welfare is bad because it creates dependency and traps people in poverty. There are a lot of good conversations happening right now, have been for a while, about the most effective solutions to poverty, what we can do to get the best bang for our buck, philosophical conversations about what the role of government should be. But what’s happened throughout the story of this scandal is that pretty much every single person can agree that money given directly to people in poverty – even if that’s not ideal for you– is better and more effective than giving it to Brett Favre to give speeches, for example.

Since the beginning, before the scandal broke, all I was trying to do was report on the programs we have, gauge their effectiveness and outcomes, and write about better ways to do things. 

So now that hopefully the corruption is being rooted out, and not just corruption, but also rooting out these fanciful ideas about what government should be in the business of doing, I hope now we can have the real conversation about what to do with the resources we do have. Because Mississippi is a conservative state, we like conservative government, but we’re also a very charitable state and while I do believe a small group of people in the state enjoy our high poverty rate and profit from it, that doesn’t reflect the majority of us who want to see everyone in our state thrive.

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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.