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Cover story

Stopping the unspent welfare buck


The poor in Mississippi hadn’t seen this before. Young and old, they turned up by the hundreds this spring for a series of statewide meetings with Department of Human Services officials.

Not only did sessions open with a prayer, officials listened to poor people as they spoke.

“The hope was palpable,” said Catholic Charities’ state lobbyist Donna Gunn, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondolet. “I was moved to tears.”

There’s been much to weep about in Mississippi. Though the state has kicked 83 percent of its welfare clients off welfare since 1993, fewer than 25 percent of them have found full-time jobs. Mississippi is 51st in welfare payments; it pays less per family per month than any other state. Connecticut pays $636 a month to a family of three. Mississippi pays $170, bumped up from $120 a month last year.

Factored for inflation, Mississippi’s welfare payments have decreased 48 percent in 30 years.

Meanwhile, Mississippi stockpiled millions of federal dollars rather than spend them on the needy. It’s the only U.S. state to return child-care funds to Washington.

Suddenly things have changed. Now Mississippi is on a roll, and it’s not just a welfare roll. The unspent buck these days stops at Bettye Ward Fletcher’s desk.

Late last year, in a squeaker gubernatorial race, the poor and their advocates revolted and voted in, barely, David Ronald Musgrove. Democrat Ronnie Musgrove, then lieutenant governor, campaigned on the fact that he understood the issues. He’s grown up poor, son of a widowed mother who did factory work to support her four children.

The vote was so tight that Musgrove didn’t quite get the required 50 percent against his opponents. He finally was elected in January by a straight up-or-down 34 majority vote by the Mississippi House of Representatives. He campaigned saying his administration would reflect “the face of Mississippi.” And, said Michael Raff, “he’s doing it, appointing black and white, men and women, Republican and Democrat.” Raff, who arrived in Mississippi as a civil rights worker in the 1960s, has a strong track record as an advocate for the poor, and has just taken on economic development issues in the revamped Department of Human Services.

Raff serves under Fletcher, who, in one of Musgrove’s early appointments, was made executive director of the department. Educated, articulate, determined -- and black -- she holds a Ph.D. in social work and is a former interim president of historically black Jackson State University. It was Fletcher who convened the six statewide meetings. She also fired department heads who weren’t social workers, inaugurated tracking systems to find out how jobless who are no longer on welfare were faring and launched the Mississippi Health Benefits Program, “targeting CHIP -- Children’s Health Insurance Program -- and spending the unspent Temporary Aid to Needy Families” -- millions the previous administration had sat on.

Temporary Aid to Needy Families, the federal aid program, is a big issue in Mississippi, Fletcher told NCR. Within two years, Washington will review the program, and states will have to prove they need the amount Washington has allotted them.

Fletcher is no welfare softie. She wants those federal dollars to really work for Mississippi. “I’m in the trenches of service delivery, but the entire state needs to understand our forward movement.” By that, she means, “I want to help Mississippians rethink how they view this agency. When we provide nutritional assistance, not only do we respond to hunger, we also supply a significant revenue stream in the state for the retail food industry. When Johnny has an ear infection and can go to the doctor, his health care needs get met, but we also provide a revenue stream for third-party payments. There are plenty of examples,” she said.

“We truly want to move people into self-sufficiency,” Fletcher said. “We’re telling people we can’t do everything, but we’ll change and improve what we can.”

There’s a lot to change in Mississippi. At Fletcher’s town meetings, the elderly wanted prescription drug assistance and reliable meals-on-wheels programs. Young mothers wanted child-care. Along with Indiana, Mississippi hugs the bottom of the list of states with the fewest children enrolled in child-care and early education programs.

The following statistics tell more of the story. They are drawn from surveys by the Children’s Defense Fund’s State of America’s Children (2000), the Food Research and Action Center’s State of the States (1999), the AARP’s Reforming the Health Care System: State Profiles (1999).


Mississippi ranks 49th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in quality of prenatal care for pregnant women. The state is second-worst for low birthweight. It is third highest in the nation, after Washington, D.C., and Arkansas, for teen birth rates. Mississippi is right behind Washington for infant mortality, 46th in health insurance coverage for children (though the state does well at immunizing children, ranking 9th-highest among the states). It ranks 50th, behind Utah, on public school expenditures.

The state is fourth in firearms deaths, behind Washington, D.C., Louisiana and Nevada. It was, from 1995 to 1997, eighth in number of uninsured persons under 65, 50th in spending on home health care, 51st in Medicaid payments per adult or child, second worst in population underserved by primary care physicians. Only Louisiana has fewer physicians.


Fourteen percent of households are “food insecure”; 4.2 percent are said to be “with hunger.” The Mississippi poverty rate is 17.6 percent; for children under 18, it is 21.8 percent. (Montana, New Mexico, New York, Texas, Florida, California, Arizona and Alabama are worse, by a percentage point or two.) But in West Virginia, 27.5 percent of all children under 18 live in poverty, in Louisiana 29.2, and in Washington, D.C, 45.3 percent). Food stamp recipients in Mississippi dropped by 31 percent between 1994 and ’98.

Mississippi ranks third in the percentage of students receiving both school lunch and breakfast and, despite the shocking infant mortality rate, the number of women participating in WIC, a federal nutrition program for women, infants and children, has dropped 3.3 percent since 1990.

National Catholic Reporter, September 22, 2000