Former NFL quarterback Brett Favre may have improperly siphoned millions of dollars in welfare funds for his own pet project, according to the state of Mississippi and court documents.
Favre is the highest-profile figure caught in the Mississippi welfare scandal, in which the state funneled $77 million of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds to people with political connections.
But there’s an even bigger scandal here: Nationwide, most TANF money doesn’t go to poor people in the first place.
Just 22% of program funds went to cash assistance in 2020, according to an analysis of state and federal data by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank. The bulk of the rest of the money paid for child care, training programs, tax credits and administration of the program itself.
The Favre case “is absolutely an egregious example of the pitfalls that are inherent in TANF today,” Aditi Shrivastava, a senior policy analyst with the CBPP, said in an interview.
Why does the program most closely associated with the word “welfare” spend so little money on actual cash welfare? Because that’s how Congress wanted it.
In the 1990s, Democrat Bill Clinton ran for president on a pledge to “end welfare as we know it,” and Republican Newt Gingrich became House Speaker partly by promising a “Contract with America” that included welfare cuts. Together they eliminated an open-ended federal entitlement for low-income mothers, called Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and in 1996 replaced it with TANF, a fixed annual grant allowing states to design their own programs.
The law limited the duration of benefits, required states to sanction parents who fail to comply with “work requirements,” and rewarded states for keeping their caseloads down. In 1996, more than two-thirds of families in poverty received benefits, while just 21% did as of 2020, according to CBPP. Only a million families received monthly payments that year.
Welfare reform also gave states leeway to set benefits, and states with larger percentages of Black residents have been less likely to provide cash.
Mississippi, a state with one of the largest Black populations, has long had one of the least generous TANF programs, spending just 5% of its program dollars on payments to families. The maximum monthly benefit for a family of three there is just $260, with eligibility restricted to those with monthly income beneath $680. Just 2,300 Mississippi families received cash benefits in the average month of 2020. Meanwhile, the state was sitting on $47 million in unspent funds.
“Mississippi should be providing a lot more cash assistance to a lot more families,” Shrivastava said.
Welfare politics has changed since the 1990s, with Democrats now favoring unconditional cash assistance that doesn’t deny benefits to the unemployed. And for a brief time during the coronavirus pandemic, even Republicans supported just giving money to the poorest of the poor. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) even proposed scrapping TANF as part of a plan to give all parents in the U.S. a monthly child allowance instead. But proposals to overhaul the safety net along those lines have stalled.
The TANF program has continued humming along in the background, the value of its $16 billion federal block grant steadily eroding with inflation.
Favre allegedly received about $1 million from nonprofits that received TANF grants from Mississippi, and he allegedly tried to steer millions more toward construction of a volleyball stadium at his daughter’s school.
The former director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services and several people associated with the nonprofits have pleaded guilty for their roles in the fraud scheme, which was initially exposed by a state auditor in 2020.
Favre hasn’t been charged with a crime. He paid the money back, and has said he had no idea it was supposed to be for something else. But even if it hadn’t gone to Favre’s bank account, it probably wouldn’t have gone to a needy family either.