How ‘welfare reform’ steals from the poor

In reverse Robin Hood stories across the nation, the rich are stealing from the poor. In the process, they’re revealing a social safety net that’s been cut to shreds by “welfare reform.”

About one-third of Americans are struggling to get by. When hardworking families find that their bootstraps aren’t there to pull up, they reach for their frayed shoestrings — and a little help.


Operation Shoestring has helped struggling families in Jackson, Mississippi, for decades. The social service organization holds regular summer camps so children from low-income households can get health care, enrichment and STEM training. When the local water became too toxic to drink this August, Operation Shoestring gave families filters.

Operation Shoestring made its annual application for some of the state’s Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF, funds. But this time, the money wasn’t there for Operation Shoestring — or Mississippi’s poorest families.In the poorest state in the nation, where one in five people live below the official poverty line, only 1% of all eligible families get the help designed for them.

So where has the money gone?

Welfare payments used to go directly to the families who needed them. But since the “welfare reform” of the 1990s, federal TANF assistance has been routed through state block grants. As a result, it’s effectively become a slush fund for state officials to practically spend as they wish. In Mississippi, that’s led to the worst embezzlement scandal in state history.

Hall of Fame quarterback and Mississippi native Brett Favre is a central figure in that scandal. According to recently released texts, starting in 2017 Favre lobbied the state heavily to fund a new volleyball facility at the University of Southern Mississippi, where Favre’s daughter played the sport. To pay for it, state officials diverted at least $5 million from the welfare system.

This money alone could have provided a year’s worth of child care to nearly 1,000 Mississippians.

Favre allegedly also urged the state to divert welfare funds to Prevacus, a drug company in which he was the largest individual investor. And he’s named in a civil suit for taking $1.1 million in welfare funds to give speeches he didn’t even show up for.

Mississippi gave retired wrestler Ted DiBiase Jr. more than $3.1 million in welfare money for his Christian self-help business. That money could have paid more than 220,000 electricity bills for struggling households. All told, at least $94 million of Mississippi’s welfare funds have gone toward questionable enterprises like these. But the diversion of TANF money away from the families who need it is a national problem.

According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, 14 states have paid less than 10% of their TANF funds on basic assistance for poor and low-income people. Nationally, states spent only 21%.

“Welfare reform” was based on the cruel assumption that poor people couldn’t be trusted to collect welfare honestly. Instead, it’s proving the opposite — that politicians and the wealthy misuse this money.

There’s a better way. Before they expired, pandemic relief programs like the enhanced monthly Child Tax Credit put a huge dent in poverty by simply giving money directly to families — no paperwork, no middlemen. But with these programs lapsing, child poverty and other hardships are again on the rise, even with more Americans working full-time than ever.

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