Mississippi Poor Leave Welfare, But For What?
By Clare Nolan, Senior Writer
SUNFLOWER COUNTY, Mississippi -- If the overhaul of the nation's welfare system meant poor families would replace public aid with paychecks, that has not occurred in Mississippi. If welfare reform meant states would make investments to help people move from welfare to work, that has not happened either.
Under former Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice, Mississippi did not reform welfare, it practically dismantled it. A new administration headed by former Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat, is moving to change things, but given the state's historical apathy toward its poorest citizens, it's unclear if it will succeed.
Four years after it adopted the nation's toughest 'work-first' rules, Mississippi's caseloads have fallen faster than those of every state but Idaho, Wisconsin and Wyoming. It has also spent less than most states, amassing a $100 million surplus in federal funds meant for needy families.
In a strange twist, Mississippi's frugality has actually cost its taxpayers money. Last year, while the Mississippi Department of Human Services sat on its federal stash, the legislature had to ante up more than $6 million in general revenue to boost the agency's budget.
While the money goes unspent, only twenty-five percent of Mississippi's former welfare recipients are working full-time, the lowest post-welfare employment rate recorded by any state so far.
Even in the desolate, 12-county stretch of bayous and cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta, welfare rolls have dropped as much as 77 percent, but unemployment is still three times above the national average.
Thousands here have learned to live without the monthly checks that were once a key source of support. They have turned instead to long commutes to low-wage casino jobs, to other federal programs -- mostly disability -- and, in the case of at least one family, to peddling crack cocaine.
The entrenched rural poverty of the Delta makes Mississippi unusual among the states, but its experience may hold implications far beyond its borders. Despite its strong economy -- unemployment statewide is just one percent above the national average -- the high demand for workers has not meant that those isolated by geography and a lack of education can find and keep jobs on their own.
In January, Musgrove succeeded Fordice, who ended his second term in disgrace after admitting to an extra-marital affair with a childhood sweetheart. The new governor, who was installed by the Democratic legislature after failing to win a clear majority in last November's election, has changed the leadership of the Department of Human Services and is drafting plans to increase spending on services for the poor.
But time is running short. Mississippi has just two years before Congress revisits the 1996 federal welfare law to prove to Washington that it needs all the federal block grant money it has been given.
In a brief interview, Musgrove declined to talk about his predecessor's record. By all accounts, he himself paid little attention to welfare when he was lieutenant governor.
"We need to assist our people, first by removing them from the welfare rolls, but also by moving them to meaningful employment," Musgrove said. "It is not a success if they are removed from the welfare rolls but are not working."
What About Mississippi?
Because of its history of stingy spending on social programs, Mississippi, where one of out six lives in poverty, came under particular scrutiny in the mid-1990s as Congress debated devolving authority for welfare to the states.
Critics of welfare reform repeatedly asked, What about Mississippi?' They feared that the Magnolia State, where 80 percent of welfare recipients were African-American, would lead a race to the bottom,' by cutting its benefits.
At the time, Mississippi's welfare benefit of just $120 a month for a single mother with two children was the lowest in the nation.
Fordice, Mississippi's first Republican governor since Reconstruction, won election in 1991 in part because of his take-no-prisoners stance on welfare.
"It was his mindset that government shouldn't be doing welfare. Business should do it, that people should lift themselves up by their bootstraps and that churches should be involved," said Roy Mitchell, former director of the Mississippi Coalition of Block Grants.
To the surprise of many, Mississippi adopted the longest time limit allowed under the federal welfare law, five years. And in 1999, it raised its average welfare stipend to $170.
But Mississippi also chose the toughest sanctions for recipients. Parents were required to spend 35 hours a week looking for work or in a subsidized job. Failure to abide by the rules could mean a family would lose its entire welfare benefit and food stamps for at least two months. Adults could also lose Medicaid coverage. Mississippi has since rescinded the food stamp penalty.
Not surprisingly, many recipients left welfare to find work on their own rather than run the gauntlet of state regulations.
In the Delta, former welfare recipients describe the collision of punitive state policies with a community where educational opportunities are limited, steady jobs are few and too many are ravaged by the diseases of poverty -- diabetes, heart disease and substance abuse. Many older adults here have moved off welfare rolls onto disability.
Many women who have found regular jobs work mostly overnight as housekeepers and coin counters at 14 casinos that now line the Mississippi River on the state's western border. The pay is low, between $6.50 and $7.00-an-hour, and the 100-mile round-trip commute on the unlit, two-lane county roads is often dangerous.
Prisons, which also seem to be sprouting from the fields as fast as cotton, are another option for applicants with high school diplomas. But in many Delta counties, fewer than 50 percent of adults have graduated from high school.
Timothy Scott, a 29 year-old single father of two, is physically fit and a high school graduate. But since he moved his family back to Sunflower County in 1996, he has often gone without work.
Laid off since February, his only income is $325 in food stamps.
Scott's experience indicates how Mississippi's policies, even in the era of welfare reform, can backfire even for those who do find work. Last year, he was employed nearly full-time as a day-laborer building the new Tallahatchie County Corrections Center in Tutwiler, which is scheduled to open in May.
But, when he began work on the prison, Scott failed to report his new job to the state within the 10 days required. As a sanction, the state then cut his food stamp allotment by $100 a month.
Ignoring the Poor
In Sunflower County, more than 11 percent are unemployed -- three times the national average -- and the poverty rate is 40 percent. Still, the welfare rolls have fallen 62 percent since 1997 because of Mississippi's new welfare rules.
Today, only 14,700 families still get welfare in the entire state, down 81 percent since 1993. Fifty-three percent of these are child-only cases, meaning children who live with grandmothers or foster parents.
The food stamp rolls are also down, 40 percent since 1995.
The result has been enormous savings. In the past two years, Mississippi has stashed away $72 million in federal welfare money. It will receive another $86.8 million this year.
Next year, when Congress turn its attention to reauthorizing the federal welfare law, it will likely decide how much money each state will receive based on how much it has spent.
For that reason, the Musgrove administration is under the gun. Although many other states accumulated millions of dollars in unspent welfare funds, few saved such a large percentage of their yearly grant as Mississippi. And many states increased their spending on new programs this year, while Mississippi's surplus continued to balloon.
"I am a little surprised and really disturbed that we have built up that big a surplus," said Representative Bobby Moody, chair of the state House Public Health and Welfare Committee. In 1997, Moody authored Mississippi's welfare-reform law, over Fordice's objections. Fordice had argued legislation was unnecessary.
Unaware of the size of the surplus growing in Mississippi's federal welfare account, lawmakers in 1999 acceded to a Fordice administration proposal to increase the budget of the state Department of Human Services by $6.28 million.
Had Mississippi spent more of its federal money, it could have used more of those funds to run the department, making the budget request unnecessary.
"With the information that has come to us in the last few days, I think we will probably take a little bit closer look through the legislative oversight committee," Moody said.
Passing Up Money For the Poor
Mississippi is the only state to return child care funds to Washington. In all, it has sent back $2.5 million that it failed to spend in 1998 and 1999. This year, the state is on pace to leave $27 million of its $38 million federal child care fund unspent, says the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative, an advocacy group for the poor in Jackson.
On paper, Mississippi's child care program appears generous. The state claims to offer subsidies to families earning up to 85 percent of the state's median income. But only eight percent of eligible children receive subsidized child care.
Petra Kay, who directs the Reservoir YMCA in a booming suburb east of Jackson, has been waiting since January to be reimbursed for the after-school care of 90 children.
"It's a major, major fight and it has been a major, major fight," Kay said.
In many families that have left welfare for work, grandparents bear much of the responsibility for raising Mississippi's youngest generation.
When Wanda Holman was commuting to a casino 70 miles north of the Delta town where she lives, she dropped her two children with her mother at midnight to make the 2 A.M. shift and often did not see them again until 4 or 5 P.M. the next day.
Holman lost her job in November after a dispute with her boss and she says she will not go back to the casinos. "The hours are too difficult. If you go up there, you are going to be on second or third shift."
Under Fordice, Mississippi hired a research team from Millsaps College in Jackson to conduct a limited study of welfare reform efforts. According to the results released so far, Mississippi's casinos, prisons and other businesses are falling far short of absorbing the large number of adults who have left the welfare rolls.
Researchers interviewed several hundred former recipients and followed up on them in the state's unemployment insurance records. The results are unsettling, the worst reported by any state so far.
Of the former recipients who spoke to poll-takers, only 35 percent said they had jobs. Only 23 percent said they were working full-time.
The review of the unemployment insurance rolls confirmed the earlier findings. Over a 15-month period after they left the welfare rolls, less than 25 percent had earned more than $500 a month.
If those results hold up to further scrutiny, 75 percent -- two-thirds of the families who have left welfare in Mississippi -- are earning the same or less than they would have received in welfare and food stamps.
Neither report explained how those who are not working are supporting themselves.
Some women who met a reporter at a community center in the Delta county of Quitman to talk about life after welfare, pointed to the plight of one local family as an example of what has happened to some of the disappeared. They asked that the family's identity be kept secret.
After a mother of four, an addict, was caught trying to sell crack cocaine to an undercover police officer and sent to jail, the oldest daughter, still a teenager, inherited the burden of looking after her brothers and sisters. When she was unable to keep her younger sister from quitting school, the state ended the family's food stamps and welfare benefits. Mississippi requires children attend school regularly for a family to receive welfare.
Today, neighbors say the daughter is following in her mother's footsteps, selling crack cocaine to make ends meet.
Mississippi's New Administration
"With the new administration, we've got some great opportunities happening," said Oleta Fitzgerald of the Mississippi Children's Defense Fund. "A lot of the problems of the past, we think we are going to be able to work through."
To the delight of advocates like Fitzgerald, Musgrove has chosen Dr. Bettye Ward Fletcher to run the Department of Human Services. Fletcher began her career as a Head Start director, earned a doctorate in social work and rose through the ranks of higher education to serve as interim president of historically black Jackson State University.
Fletcher has fired five of the department's 12 division heads and hired two longtime Mississippi activists to revamp the state's welfare and child care programs. Michael Raff, the new director of economic assistance, first arrived in Mississippi 35 years ago as a volunteer in the civil rights movement.
For two decades, Raff, an attorney, made a career out of suing the state of Mississippi, including the Dept. of Human Services.
"It's our responsibility to do what we have been asking others to do for 30 years," Raff said. "There's an opportunity to really change things and we don't want to blow it."
The new child care director, Carol Burnett, is a Methodist minister who spent 12 years as the director of a child care center on Mississippi's gulf coast. During the Fordice administration, Burnett started the Mississippi Low-Income Childcare Initiative to draw attention to the state's lack of services.
Still Bullish On Block Grants
With the exception of the members of the Legislative Black Caucus, enthusiasm still runs high in the state Capitol for the new welfare system.
Despite what they call the mismanagement of the Fordice administration, lawmakers hope Congress will not rescind the authority it gave them to run their anti-poverty programs as they see fit.
"The more flexibility the state has, I think the greater chance of success," said Rep. Bobby Moody. "Every state has a different problem and then every area, even of our state, we have difference needs all around in different areas of the state."
Sen. Hob Bryan, a Democrat, argues that the Fordice administration was unique, even for Mississippi. "I wouldn't pay much attention to what took place in Mississippi as a case study for how to design national policy."