Mississippi Legislature Misfires on TANF Fraud. Again.

Mississippi Center for Justice President Vangela Wade criticized the requirements to quality for TANF aid. Photo courtesy Polly C. Speak.

What do you do when you uncover a years-long scheme by wealthy contractors to defraud poor Mississippi families of millions of dollars? Well, if you’re a Mississippi politician, you quickly pass bills scrutinizing impoverished beneficiaries, rather than contractors.

That’s the state of things in the Mississippi legislature this session, as GOP members dropped two bills seeking to impose onerous new hoops for poor families to jump through in order to qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) aid.

The federal government distributes TANF money to states to assist poverty-level families with food, job placement and childcare. This doesn’t happen very often in Mississippi, however, because the feds put state leaders in control of the money, and state leaders here are either corrupt, clowns or both.

The Lighthouse recently covered how State Auditor Shad White arrested six politically connected people who allegedly embezzled millions of dollars slated for destitute Mississippi families. The scheme includes Mississippi business owner and talk show guest Nancy New and her employees, as well as former Mississippi Department of Human Service Executive Director John Davis and MDHS employee Latimer Smith. Davis allegedly worked with New, from inside his own agency, to steer multiple million-dollar contracts to New’s Mississippi Community Education Center, which then blew the cash on personal items and assorted idiocy like Californian ex-wrestler, Brett DiBiase.

New is politically connected to the GOP media machine, former governor Phil Bryant and current Gov. Tate Reeves, who filmed campaign ads at New’s charter school in Jackson, Miss., last year. It makes sense, then, that days after New’s news hit the street (see what we did there?), the Republican-dominated legislature immediately got to work rooting out all of the corruption in the state’s TANF system that had absolutely nothing to do with her.

“They’re (using legislation) to turn your heads away from the criminals that are taking advantage of the programs that are supposed to serve poor children and families,” said Children’s Defense Fund Director Oleta Fitzgerald, who joined the Mississippi Center for Justice, ONEVoice and other organizations at a February press conference. “If there is fraud and abuse in the (TANF program), it is coming from the provider level, not from the people needing the help.”

What New’s GOP allies are trying to pass are SB 2257 and HB 749. If these bills become law, they’ll add yet another hoop TANF-eligible families and children will have to jump through in order to qualify for federal money. The bills demand TANF applicants submit tax information to auditors to prove their financial eligibility.

Critics such as Mississippi Center for Justice President Vangela Wade lambasted the new requirement.

“When people apply for these programs they are already scrutinized for whatever resources or income they have,” Wade told The Lighthouse. “If a person loses his or her job in the middle of the year, how does a tax return determine their eligibility? How can that be a factor? What would be the purpose of that, as opposed to more scrutiny on how (corrupt) government officials are spending money?”

Mississippi, despite being the nation’s most impoverished state, already has plenty of barriers to boot broken families from TANF. This includes work requirements and a low-income prerequisite that’s almost impossible to meet unless you’re living under a log. A family of three, for example, can only generate $3,538 in annual revenue to qualify for assistance. Mississippi also demands that single parents verify whether they are receiving child support and to apply for MDHS’ Child Support Services assistance if they are not.

Under these tight requirements, less than 20% of Mississippi families who are eligible for TANF actually receive it. That means more money, naturally, for alleged criminals and insiders like Nancy New and John Davis. Critics say this also means that beneficiary fraud just doesn’t happen.

“Let me be very clear: beneficiary fraud is extremely rare,” said Wade. “Existing prevention and detection methods and current data sources for eligibility audits are already in place (to prevent it).”

Fitzgerald said the Division of Medicaid has already refused to use tax returns, in part, because tax returns are unreliable and cumbersome. She added she was personally disappointed to see Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann letting these kinds of bills out of committee, especially now—when contractor fraud is flooding the news and embarrassing the state.

“We really expected more from the lieutenant governor,” Fitzgerald said. “We thought that bills like this would not be allowed to make it out of the Senate, and the first thing we see, on the heels of contractors stealing money, are bills that target for poor families. What exactly has sprung up to indicate all this thievery on the part of poor people?”

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