/Welfare dollars help fund college scholarships for children of middle-class families

Welfare dollars help fund college scholarships for children of middle-class families

Published a February and January investigation on state financial aid. It revealed an outdated program that was characterized by a lack awareness about need-based scholarships, barriers to aiding the most vulnerable citizens such as adults learners and families with low incomes. Unknown facts about the state’s financial aid spending in 2017 show that Mississippi spent almost half of its state-funded scholarships on welfare spending. At the height of welfare reform in 1996, Congress created Temporary Aid for Needy Families. This safety net program replaced the old cash assistance entitlement program Aid to Families with Dependent Children. This new pool of welfare dollars, which totaled $31.1 billion in 2017, was not an entitlement. Instead, the federal government granted the funds to the states as a block grant. The local governments had broad discretion over how they would spend them. The money has been spent in many different ways by states since then. Mississippi’s annual TANF budget amounts to $108 million. This includes the 20 percent state match. The national average spending on basic cash assistance (which many refer to as the “welfarecheck”) for families with deep poverty was just below a quarter of TANF funds. In 2017, Mississippi was consistently one of the poorest states. It spent 8.6 million dollars, or 7.2 percent, on direct cash payments to poor families. This is the most recent federal spending data available. The program is administered by the Mississippi Department of Human Services. To draw down roughly $86 million in federal welfare funds every year, Mississippi must spend $21.7 million in direct state dollars on one of the four federally-established missions of TANF: provide assistance to needy families so children can be cared for in their home; reduce the dependency of needy parents by promoting job preparation, work and marriage; prevent out-of-wedlock pregnancies; and encourage two-parent families. The “maintenance” match is money that the state may already spend on related programs such as state financial aid. Mississippi’s 2017 TANF spending was $18.8million on state scholarships for 13,675 people. This is significantly more than the $10 million it spent in 2016 to serve 8,987 people. These welfare expenditures are allowed to pay for scholarships for families with incomes up to 350% of the poverty line. This is more than twice the state’s median household income. These scholarships are not targeted to the most vulnerable citizens. In fact, Mississippi Today found that at least 78 per cent of scholarship recipients who received TANF assistance in 2017 came from families that would not be eligible for TANF. They are perfectly legal in what they do. It is legal. “It does show that the state has spent very little from its own coffers to provide these services… It’s an investment in families in poverty.” This is not unusual. The federal government has allowed states to use the block grant for activities that help people not considered needy since the creation of TANF. This includes young professionals getting marriage counseling. Jacob Black, the human services deputy administrator of programs, said that Mississippi Today has used state scholarships since 1990 to meet its TANF match. Black stated that the agency is achieving one of TANF’s tenets, which is the promoting educational piece. This is how we can count it. Although advocates say that TANF has four purposes, “Promoting Education” is not one. However, some critics have criticized the program’s focus on employment and limited participation in education. The recipients of the scholarships do not have the same work requirements or other eligibility restrictions that traditional TANF recipients. Mississippi Today asked for interviews from six agency officials four times. An attorney from the department replied three days later to Mississippi Today’s request. Attorney Dewitt Fortenberry requested that the news organization send written questions via email “per our Media Policy.” This policy was established in March following months of inquiry by Mississippi Today about its administration. Mississippi Today has asked the department at least five questions and received no reply. States can spend TANF dollars to stop people from needing TANF. However, each state has the ability to determine who is most at risk of falling into poverty. Some states set the poverty line at 200 percent, while others place it at 350 percent. Floyd stated that he has not met any expert in the policy area — when we’re discussing anti-poverty programmes — 350 percent of poverty level is not being considered the marker for low income. It’s another way they justify spending that money,” Floyd said. Mississippi also gave $27.6million to two non-profits, Mississippi Community Education Center, and Family Resource Center of Northeast Mississippi. These entities make up a entity called Families First. This amount is over 25% of annual TANF dollars. The funds were used to establish resource centers for people below 350 percent of poverty line. Although Mississippi has a low percentage of TANF spending, it spends significantly higher, 78 percent, on “core services,” which include child care, work activities, supports, and scholarships. The state’s largest spending outside of core services is $12.8 million (10.7%) for child welfare, and $9 million (7.6%) for “Fatherhood, Two-Parent Family Formation, and Maintenance Programs.” Matt Williams from Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative said that due to budget constraints, his non-profit supports the state using any available resources to meet matching requirements. Williams authored a 2017 study that analyzed the spending trends for TANF over its 20-year history. Williams stated in an email that “When we use state spending to draw down federal TANF funds, we also have to ensure these state funded financial aid and scholarship opportunities are prioritizing mothers who are receiving TANF (or the many others who are eligible for TANF),” Williams wrote. According to reports to the federal government Mississippi stated that the scholarships met the three main goals of TANF. The report states that these programs offer safe and stable environments that help children succeed and enable their parents to work. According to the Mississippi Office of Student Financial Aid annual reports, 96% of state scholarship recipients were traditional students aged 17-24. Eighty-nine per cent were dependents. This means that they were supported by their parents, or another guardian. The majority of the TANF recipients were white (73%) despite being 78 percent African American. “You are not investing in families of color or families living in poverty. Floyd stated that you are supporting families with higher incomes as well as families that are predominantly white. If we assume that the Mississippi welfare state scholarships, which serve 13,675, are the most vulnerable recipients, only one-third of them came from families earning less than $30,000 in 2017. According to Pew Research Center, forty percent of the recipients were from households with incomes above $48,000. This is well within the national middle-class. Jennifer Rogers, State Financial Aid director, stated that a lot of our aid is given to students who have financial resources. This is due to the way the programs are structured. Rogers stated that the state’s financial assistance programs were established in the mid-1990s when the federal Pell Grant, which is a need-based financial aid program, was created to cover the costs of college for students with low income. Rogers stated that the Pell Grant’s purchasing power is not as strong as it was in the past because college costs have risen significantly over the past decade and more students are attending college. Rogers said, “Times have changed.” Rogers does not have control over the state’s TANF spending. However her office supplies the data that human services uses in TANF expenditure reports to the federal government. Rogers stated that the data has been reviewed and found that “the reporting we are doing is 100 per cent within the guidelines of what was required.” The number of families in poverty receiving cash assistance, $170 per month for a family with three children, is decreasing, down from more than 10,000 in 2013 and below 4,500 in 2018. In 2018, only 7,112 Mississippi children received TANF in an average month. This is less than four percent of the nearly 200,000 children living in poverty in the state. Mississippi Today reached out to several state agency officials regarding the state’s TANF spending since October. They received no response.