Militant Journalism

Steal from the poor, give to the rich: welfare fraud in Mississippi

The law suit that overturned Roe v. Wade was initiated in Mississippi by Thomas E. Dobbs, a state official. Anti-abortion Mississippi politicians hypocritically claim to care about children and families, yet Mississippi has the largest percentage of children living in poverty, the highest infant mortality rate, is the poorest state and has been called the worst place to raise a family.

Recent revelations show why this is so.

The state’s Department of Human Resources, the agency responsible for distributing federal funds to poor families, gave millions of dollars of these funds instead to wealthy, politically-connected Mississippians for their pet sports projects and athletes, and for meals at expensive steak houses. State auditor Shad White called this case “some of the largest fraud in state history.”

$94 million stolen from the poor

On July 22, the Mississippi State Department of Human Resources fired a lawyer investigating $94 million in misspent welfare funds. The lawyer, J. Brad Pigott, was fired a week after filing a subpoena for records from the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation concerning $5 million in welfare funds the foundation had misappropriated for a volleyball stadium on Southern Mississippi’s campus.

“I believe I was fired as a result of a pattern of orders from the Mississippi governor’s office concerning protecting an entity, called the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation, from any responsibility in this matter,” said Pigott in an interview with the New York Times.

This firing reveals the corruption at the root of the Mississippi State Department of Human Resources. It exposes the fraud within the system of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families fund distribution in Mississippi, and the hypocrisy of the anti-abortion Mississippi politicians who pretend to care about children and families.

Governor Tate Reeves (middle) stands with Brett Favre (left) and former Governor Phil Bryant at a 2019 fundraiser hosted by Poncho James, who sits on the board of the USM Athletic Foundation. Photo: Gov. Tate Reeves twitter feed.

‘Some of the largest fraud in state history

The investigation started with a 2020 state audit which led to a Hinds County grand jury indicting six people, including former welfare director John Davis and non-profit director Nancy New, on charges relating to fraud and embezzlement. Much of the misspent funds went through two non-profits under the Families First for Mississippi Initiative, which is supposed to move poor families off of government assistance.

Under this initiative, money allocated for assisting Mississippi’s poor, was instead spent on:

  • The Nancy New family’s personal investment of $2.15 million for Prevacus, a medical device company;
  • A fitness boot-camp run by former linebacker Paul Lacoste attended by professionals and state lawmakers free of charge. Some of this money was spent at expensive steakhouses — for a total cost of $1.3 million;
  • A $1.1 million speaking fee to Brett Favre for speeches that he never showed up for;
  • $160,000 to retired professional wrestler Brett Dibiase for personal drug-rehabilitation treatment in Malibu, plus $48,000 for work he did not do for related nonprofits;
  • A $9,500 per month mortgage for former football star Marcus Dupree’s ranch.

Mississippi Today reported that Pigott’s former boss, current Governor Tate Reeves, has received millions in campaign funding from 11 of the Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation’s board members. Furthermore, several of these donors are direct beneficiaries of the welfare scheme, including Brett Favre, Zach New and Nancy New.

Racist, classist history of TANF

Media and politician narratives around welfare and poverty have always blamed the poor for their plight and reflected anti-Black racism. Despite the decades-long slanders that poor Black women in need of assistance are “stealing tax-dollars,” this case shows that it is actually the ruling-class politicians and their wealthy donors who are helping themselves to tax funds.

TANF is a block grant provided to states, which decide to whom and how the funds are distributed. The program’s stated purpose is to provide cash assistance to poor families, promote employment, prevent out-of-wedlock pregnancies and encourage two-parent families.

In 2018, Mississippi only spent 5% of $135 million in TANF funds on direct assistance to families. Some $40 million was spent on indirect assistance under control of agencies, foundations, private schools and nonprofits, such as the “Fatherhood and Two Parent Family Formation.”

The federal government requires documentation on families that get direct assistance from TANF, but requires none of the same documentation on how 95% of these other funds are spent indirectly. Washington gives intense scrutiny to needy families, but not to those of the capitalist class that own non-profits, sit on foundation boards and own private schools.

We need a new welfare system

Just as Mississippi’s ruling class has stolen money from working-class people throughout this state, the TANF system as a whole has stolen working-class people’s ability to make basic decisions about their own futures.

The following measures would help working-class families to receive the assistance they need and deserve:

  • Institute a minimum benefit that reflects cost of living for families in Mississippi
  • End the state work requirement, which limits access to crucial funds for single mothers and others in poverty
  • End behavioral requirements, time limits and other eligibility exclusions
  • Establish direct money payments to families instead of block grants to states
  • Establish a Welfare Recipient Council staffed by democratically-elected representatives, including those receiving or who have received welfare, to oversee the management of TANF and other welfare funds
  • Require the Governor, Mississippi Congress members, and state legislators to be paid a salary equal to TANF benefits for the length of their term. 

Such measures could ensure that a scandal like this never happens again in Mississippi. More importantly, actualizing these demands could put power into the hands of working-class Mississippians to enact an agenda that benefits the state’s majority, and does not lining the pockets of the well-connected.

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