What do a Hall of Fame quarterback, a former professional wrestler, and numerous government officials have in common? This sounds like the start to a bad joke, but unfortunately the answer is far more serious: These figures are among those implicated in the largest public embezzlement scheme in the history of Mississippi, one that deprived some of the poorest residents in the United States of access to desperately needed federal assistance. From 2016 to 2020, officials in the state funneled approximately $77 million of federal welfare funds to various sham initiatives designed to enrich themselves and their friends. Much of that money was directed to a nonprofit education center, which spent it on things like kickbacks to the director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, a horse ranch, football tickets for state lawmakers, and—in what brought this story to national attention—volleyball courts for the university where former NFL quarterback Brett Favre’s daughter played.
On the surface, the Mississippi welfare scandal appears to be a straightforward story of grift and greed. But perhaps more importantly, the scandal highlights deeper structural problems in one of the main federal welfare programs, known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Although the Mississippi scandal is one of the more egregious examples of TANF abuse, it’s certainly not the only one. Officials using TANF funding for kickbacks is not uncommon, and there are many more examples of states using these funds to finance projects seemingly unrelated to poverty reduction, including anti-abortion clinics and college scholarships for students who are not themselves eligible for welfare. What accounts for this widespread mismanagement of TANF funding, and what can be done to address it?