The state of Mississippi isn’t getting anything past Danielle Thomas.

Thomas is a bright, young single mother raising her six kids in south Jackson. Because she lives in poverty, Thomas is also an expert in the convoluted policies and bureaucratic red tape surrounding one of the biggest scandals in state history: the TANF program.

Despite recent attention on the graft and corruption within the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, Mississippi is still pumping less than 5% of the money directly to mothers like Thomas.

“I really think it’s still them stealing from people, to be honest,” Thomas, 34, said. “I really feel like they feel like a lot of us aren’t smart enough, or they feel like we probably don’t know the system in and out well enough.”

Thomas works part time as a home health aide earning $9.50 an hour, the same wage she started at 10 years ago. When she’s not on the job, she’s feeding and changing her 5-month-old, ferrying her other kids to and from school, cooking meals, fetching medication, tending to boo-boos, monitoring screen time, and trying to keep the shrieking to a tolerable decibel.

Danielle Thomas sits on the couch with her son Kannan, then 2, at their south Jackson home in 2021. Thomas, a 34-year-old mother of six, has faced countless barriers in Mississippi’s social safety net. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

On top of all that, Thomas basically moonlights as the unpaid lawyer, auditor and investigator on her own cases at the Mississippi Department of Human Services and other state service agencies. As most public assistance recipients know, it takes fierce self advocacy to ensure fair treatment within Mississippi’s social safety net.

Only about 1,600 very poor families in Mississippi are successfully jumping through the hoops required to receive the small TANF cash assistance payments each month.

Thomas knows a great deal more about how the TANF program works than the politicians who write the laws that govern the program.

But what happened to Thomas in recent weeks has stumped even the nation’s top policy experts.

In October, Thomas learned that she would be receiving a lump sum of more than $5,000 in back due child support from her ex-husband Larry Young, the father of her four youngest children. The state’s child support office, run by a private contractor, intercepted the money from Young’s child tax credit.

This tax offset process is part of the state’s child support enforcement program that Thomas is required to participate in to keep receiving public benefits. The rationale is, if the state is going to provide taxpayer support to single-parent families, then the noncustodial parents, usually fathers, should be forced to pay up as well.

This is where things get tricky: When the office collects support on behalf of a child receiving TANF, the state then seizes the funds to pay itself back for the welfare payments it issued. Most of that money goes straight back to the federal government.

Thomas said she sees the rationale in this, but at the same time, “I think that’s messed up a lot of co-parenting relationships … it doesn’t help how they think it helps. It kinda actually divides the family a little more.”

Thomas receives assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, for all of her children – several hundred dollars a month that comes on a debit card Thomas can only use on qualified items at qualified stores. 

But Thomas only receives TANF cash assistance, $118 a month, for each of the two eldest children, not Young’s kids.

This is because of a harsh and little-known rule in Mississippi that if a parent is already on welfare when she gets pregnant and gives birth, that new child is not eligible for TANF benefits. These are sometimes called “capped” children. Just 12 states still have this policy in place, according to a 2020 Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report.

For Thomas, this makes the child support payments for the younger kids all the more crucial.

The $5,000 cash infusion from the tax credit was coming just in time for Christmas. Thomas also planned to use some of the money to replace the radiator fan and valve cover gasket on her 2012 Dodge Durango – long overdue repairs on her only mode of transportation to work and the kids’ schools. Right now, she gets under the hood and manually sets spark to the fan before driving anywhere.

Thomas and her kids survive on the combination of her work income, no more than $13,000 a year, about $900 in monthly Supplemental Security Income, or disability benefits, that Thomas gets for her severe depression and anxiety attacks, and the public assistance. Because Thomas receives disability, she doesn’t receive a TANF payment for herself.

The prospect of a financial cushion provided Thomas some hope, but it was short lived. 

In late October, Thomas received the child support payment on her debit card. It was $100.

She called a representative at the child support office, who told her that, according to the computer screen she was looking at, the TANF program had seized the rest.

That’s not how that works, Thomas thought.

“TANF took $5,000 from my kids, but the kids that they took the money from, they don’t receive TANF. They have never received TANF,” Thomas said.

Without the incoming funds, Thomas told her ex she still needed him to help pay for clothes and shoes for the kids. At first, the dad was skeptical that the state had taken the money. The situation caused tension between the parents.

“It makes me feel bad,” Young said. “It’s sad how Mississippi does things, man. Mississippi don’t care about no one, but what they do? Help Brett Favre. Help Phil (Bryant). They don’t help the ones that actually need help.”

Mississippi, which offers some of the lowest wages, strictest public assistance requirements, fewest labor protections and most meager health care of any state is also the most poverty stricken.

But Mississippi politicians have long blamed “fatherlessness” and nonmarital pregnancy for the state’s high poverty rate, ignoring the research that reflects the inverse: that those family outcomes are most often a symptom of poverty – and the feeling that upward mobility is unachievable – rather than the cause of it.

Instead of focusing on evidence-based practices for interrupting systemic poverty, the state has spent hundreds of millions of welfare funds attempting to address fatherhood and teen pregnancy. Along the way, MDHS admits it has gathered no evidence of how these “family stabilization” programs reduced poverty. 

Millions through these programs ended up going to the pet projects of former NFL quarterback Brett Favre, other famous athletes and the cronies of state politicians.

Danielle Thomas and her son, 4-year-old Kannan Young, pose for a portrait near her home in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, December 15, 2022. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Escaping poverty was always going to be a challenge for Thomas, whose parents split before she could remember. Child Protection Services took Thomas from her mother, who is legally blind and ran an unstable household, when she was 6. She moved with her father to South Carolina until her mom regained custody, and, at 16, Thomas returned to Jackson. She bounced around high schools before dropping out, meeting her first child’s father and becoming a mother. 

Thomas secured her GED and has started several higher education programs in the hopes of securing a better paying job, but it seemed like something always got in the way of her finishing. “I start strong, I start motivated, and then I might take a blow from different things and I kind of back out,” she said.

She has prioritized the paying gig that she has versus striving for another because, she said, “I know from experience that if I don’t work, we don’t eat.”

Several years ago, Thomas entered a work program offered through SNAP, the federal food assistance program administered by Mississippi Department of Human Services. It was a 24-week course, she recalled, to learn medical billing and coding – a job in which she could potentially earn $50,000. The program promised to provide her with a certificate at the end.

“During the seventh week, we went in and they told us it was no funds left to be able to continue the program,” Thomas said.  “I really felt like it might have been something where they just found a way to reroute the money.”

Like that, the program was over.

During the pandemic, Thomas had to leave her home health job to take care of her kids, who were conducting virtual school at home. She applied for unemployment, which would have provided her an additional $600-a-week, more than she’d ever made and finally a chance to get ahead. But unemployment insurance only covers people who make over a certain amount, and because of her low earnings, the Mississippi Department of Employment Security denied Thomas the benefits. 

It appeared a technicality: Thomas didn’t qualify under traditional unemployment insurance rules, but she should have qualified under the special pandemic unemployment program, the purpose of which was to extend benefits to people not typically covered, including part-time workers like herself.

Thomas did her research, appealed the decision, and secured a hearing with the labor office. She even got her employer to corroborate the information on her claim. But after representing herself in the proceeding, she was still denied because she had filed under the traditional unemployment insurance.

Through setback after setback, Thomas doesn’t blame the government for her current situation.

“I’m not a victim because I know the decisions and the choices I have made when it comes to these children and certain things, I’ll take the accountability for. But when it comes to my children … I’d shovel horse manure to make sure my kids eat every night. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to make sure me and my children have a roof over our head and we have food on the table.”

Then there’s the added stress of raising her children in a neighborhood where gun violence is prevalent. “We’re in an area that’s really crime-ridden. It’s real, real crime-ridden and poverty-ridden,” Thomas said.

Danielle Thomas poses for a portrait near her home in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, December 15, 2022. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Not too long ago, Thomas’ 9-year-old son found a bag of marijuana on the ground on his way to school. A curious mind, he picked it up and carried it with him to class. When the administration discovered it, Thomas said they almost opened a DHS case, but because she’d been such an attentive parent – attending all parent-teacher conferences and volunteering to bring food for parties – a school administrator vouched for her.

“I’ve been raised in this type of environment … but I don’t wanna repeat cycles. I wanna break generational curses. I don’t want us to be here, but for some reason I feel like I’m stuck, because nothing will come in to allow me to get away from here,” Thomas said.

“Yes, I had all these kids. I made this bed. I have to lay in it,” she said. “But I also know I’m the type of person to where I’m not looking for the government to take care of me and my kids. I can do without, but they also gotta realize the trauma that they have forced upon some of us to where we can’t even live properly. Like, I don’t even like going outside of my home unless I have to.”

In August, State Auditor Shad White, who initially launched the ongoing TANF fraud investigation, released a report demonstrating the cost of “absent fathers” to Mississippi taxpayers. The report focused on how children who grow up in single-parent households are less likely to finish high school, more likely to go to prison and more likely to become teen mothers.

“I’m hoping folks will be informed as taxpayers, but will also realize collectively as a society we need to be sending the message that if you’re man enough to father a child, you ought to be man enough to step up and help raise that child,” White said when the report was released, WXXV reported.

Danielle Thomas and her then 2-year-old son Kannan, at their south Jackson home in September of 2021. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

In Young’s case, Mississippi has done nothing to inspire his participation. The state took from him to indirectly support the kids of someone else, while his own kids got nothing.

National policy experts have long advocated against states confiscating the child support payments of poor children to pay back the TANF support they received. They say the practice, which barely makes a difference for states since the money is returned to the feds, keeps families in poverty and harms the relationship between children and their noncustodial parents.

“In this case, it’s even worse: the state is taking money paid by a father for children who the state didn’t even provide assistance to,” said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, deputy director for policy for the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP). “While the state may have found a loophole that makes this legal, keeping these funds from Mrs. Thomas and her children is a violation of both decency and common sense.”

Little to no research on this scenario exists. Mississippi’s TANF policy manual doesn’t explicitly address it, according to the reviews of Mississippi Today and two national experts who reviewed the manual at Mississippi Today’s request for this story. It does not come up in exhaustive Q&As published by the federal agency that administers the programs, the Administration for Children & Families under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. When asked about what happened, the federal office told Mississippi Today that the agency was following Mississippi state law.

The Mississippi Department of Human Services similarly confirmed in an email to Mississippi Today that this is the agency’s policy. It said it could not comment on Thomas’ case specifically.

“While they (capped children) are not considered in the calculation of benefits, these children are still part of the head of household’s TANF case,” the statement reads. “When there are multiple children in the TANF-recipient household with different non-custodial parents, and one of those non-custodial parents makes a child support payment, that payment is applied to the overall household’s TANF recovery balance.”

It’s a miniscule policy distinction but with substantial implications – as is true with much of the state’s social safety net. The Legislature could change it.

But this area of government is often too complicated, too niche to capture the attention of the public or even policy makers. It’s part of the reason so much corruption was able to occur within the program in recent years.

Without a closer analysis, it’s easy to miss the catch-22. 

When it behooves the state to exclude the children, in the case of determining who gets monthly benefits, it excludes the children. But when it benefits the state to count the children, such as to seize their child support payments, it counts them.

MDHS said it did not have any data on how many mixed-family households this policy affects.

Thomas questions it plainly: “I don’t see how one parent can be responsible for what another parent owes.”

Danielle Thomas poses for a portrait near her home in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, December 15, 2022. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Since the $100 child support payment, Thomas has had countless calls with MDHS, the child support office, and advocates, many of whom told Thomas they’ve never encountered this scenario and that they believed it was a mistake.

When Thomas visited MDHS in person, a supervisor in the office said her TANF case carried an unreimbursed balance of about $17,000 – a mathematical mystery since she’s only received a total of $146-a-month for both children, recently raised to $236-a-month, on and off over the last several years. TANF has a lifetime limit of 60 months. At one point, an MDHS caseworker told Thomas she had been receiving TANF for two children since 2008, before her second child was even born.

“I’ve calculated and added some things up myself and I’m like, you know, ain’t no way,” Thomas said. “… It’s a lot of things I’m not understanding, but I’m really thinking like it is really just (determined by) who reviews your case and files at the time. Like, if you have someone who is reviewing your case who might let some stuff slip through the system.”

Shortly after she began pressing the agency, Thomas found a letter in her mail. It was from the child support office, notifying her that her entire MDHS public assistance case had been closed. This wasn’t true, but it added to her list of issues to resolve. She wondered if her speaking out had triggered this notice.

A tender moment between then 2-year-old Kannan Thomas and his mom Danielle Thomas at their south Jackson home in 2021. During the pandemic, Thomas, a single mother of six, has had to juggle a job and overseeing virtual learning for her children. One of the biggest barriers to upward mobility for Thomas is access to child care. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Several days later, Thomas received another letter. This one targeted her 5-month-old, who had barely begun receiving assistance, and ordered Thomas to add the baby to her child support case. The notice said she had 21 days to visit the office and hand over paperwork proving the child’s father or her entire family would be cut off from assistance altogether. 

Following Mississippi’s ban on abortion, which led to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch and others have advocated for more strictly enforcing child support. The policy is advertised as a protection for mothers.

But for Thomas, the state’s meddling has only hurt her.

“They usually don’t contact you this early,” Thomas said after receiving the last letter. “I really feel like once again, this has something to do with me going and talking to people about them.”

With about $12,000 in supposed unreimbursed TANF still hanging over her head, it’s questionable if she’ll ever see a dime of child support from any of the three fathers of her children.

By this point, Thomas was dejected.

“I don’t understand how this system works,” she said in a slow, flat voice. “I’m no longer trying to figure out how it works.”

In fact, Thomas understands better than anyone how the system works. It is working the way it was designed, by wearing down the people it purports to serve.

But then, after talking to a free legal aid office, Thomas learned she could request a formal hearing from the TANF office to challenge the paradoxical policy. It’s scheduled for later this month. She’s already downloaded and started reading the agency’s program manuals from its website.

“I’m actually not going to stop fighting,” Thomas said.

In one of her educational stints, Thomas was studying to become a paralegal. When she thinks about going back to school, that’s the career path she envisions. 

If her TANF case is any indicator, she’s a natural.

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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.