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Voters deserve clarity: Campaign ad...

Voters deserve clarity: Campaign ad wars still missing context in the TANF scandal

By: Sid Salter - August 23, 2023

Sid Salter

To become an informed voter, there is a whole lot more you need to know about TANF in Mississippi than you can learn in a 30-second TV or social media ad.

Mississippi’s TANF spending scandal must continue to be investigated and should go wherever the law and the program rules take the probe. Let the chips fall.

The episode led to this description in The Atlantic by Annie Lowry on October 29, 2022: “Over the years, Mississippi officials took tens of millions of dollars from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) —the federal program frequently known simply as “welfare”—and wasted it on pointless initiatives run by their political cronies. Money meant to feed poor kids and promote their parents’ employment instead went to horse ranches, sham leadership-training schemes, fatherhood-promotion projects, motivational speeches that never happened, and those volleyball courts.”

That general media-driven narrative has certainly become the national one on this story. Again, there is some apparent truth in the narrative, but it lacks context.  Such context is necessary now that Mississippi voters in a hotly contested and intensely partisan gubernatorial primary have entered the stretch run replete with the carpet-bombing of negative TV ads using the TANF scandal as a launching pad.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) reviewed TANF spending across the country and found that in Mississippi in 2021, our state spent about $57 million. Some 34% was spent on work activities, 27% on child welfare, 17% on “other services”, 12% on administration, 6% on basic assistance, 3% on childcare, and 1% on work support.

CBPP reported that in 2021 Mississippi ranked 42nd among the states and Washington, D.C. for percent of TANF funds spent on basic assistance (cash payments to impoverished families) at 6%.

But CBPP also noted nationally: “States have broad flexibility over the use of state and federal TANF funds. Many have used that flexibility to divert funds away from income support for families and toward other state budget areas often unrelated to TANF’s goals. In 2021, states spent only about a fifth of the funds on basic assistance to meet essential needs of families with children.”

Nonpartisan analysts said in 2020 of the TANF program nationally, not simply Mississippi: “TANF has devolved into a kind of candy store that many states are raiding to plug budget holes and pay for programs that have little to do with moving poor people into the workforce.”

Stateline analysts said the blame for TANF’s programmatic shortcomings lies both with state officials and with Congress: “Congress gave states significant flexibility to decide on cash benefits amounts, eligibility, and other requirements. It also allowed states wide latitude on how they can spend TANF dollars, as long as they are used for at least one of four broad purposes: 1) Giving assistance to needy families so children can be cared for in their own homes or with relatives; 2) Promoting job preparation and work; 3) Preventing and reducing out-of-wedlock pregnancies; and 4) Encouraging two-parent families.”

Stateline also noted that Mississippi isn’t a unicorn in terms of TANF spending issues. There have been even more fundamental and systemic complaints in neighboring Louisiana: “TANF is a slush fund,” said Jan Moller, executive director of the Louisiana Budget Project, a nonprofit research and advocacy group. “When Louisiana started having a budget crisis, TANF became a piggy bank that ended up diverting money from the core original goals of welfare reform.”

So, follow the TANF spending investigation in Mississippi where it leads. But voters bombarded with campaign TV ads related to the probe should remember some important contextual facts.

First, TANF is a flawed federal program nationally that has lacked appropriate federal and state oversight. Worse, the program has been woefully ineffective in reducing poverty and helping families in poverty return to the workforce.

Second, it’s highly unlikely that criminal, civil, and regulatory investigations of Mississippi’s TANF expenditures will be completed and revealed before Tuesday, Nov. 7. And no present or past Mississippi governor has been charged with any wrongdoing by federal or state law enforcement.

Third, to become an informed voter on this issue, there is a whole lot more you need to know about TANF in Mississippi than you can learn in a 30-second TV or social media ad.

About the Author(s)
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Sid Salter

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. He is Chief Communications Officer and Director of the Office of Public Affairs at Mississippi State University. Sid is a member of the Mississippi Press Association's Hall of Fame. His syndicated columns have been published in Mississippi and several national newspapers since 1978.