See related story: “Welfare is a Catch-22,” Aug. 1, 2011
Despite having one of the nation’s top-rated welfare programs, Mississippi has the highest poverty rate in the nation: 21.8 percent. While a national group of experts has said poverty numbers are incorrectly calculated and are too high, the fact remains that approximately 20 percent of Mississippians are not self-sufficient.
Don Taylor, former head of the state Department of Human Services, was in charge of overseeing the creation of Mississippi’s welfare reform program in the 1990s and believes poor Mississippians live in behavioral poverty more than material poverty.
Mississippi’s single-mother birth rate has increased every year since 1980, and out-of-wedlock pregnancies now account for more than 55 percent of babies born in Mississippi, according to the state Department of Health. Additionally, Mississippi’s 65 percent unintended pregnancy rate is the nation’s highest, according to the Guttmacher Institute in New York.
“It will be difficult to solve the challenges before us unless we realize the causes of the problem. It is not material poverty. It is behavioral poverty — such as the breakdown of families and fatherlessness,” Taylor said.
Taylor became executive director of MDHS in 1995, one year prior to the enactment of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act by President Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress. The act provided states with five-year block grants for the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) program — America’s principal cash assistance program to families with kids up to age 18. States could create their own welfare reform plans within federal guidelines.
Taylor said welfare prior to reform was, “immoral. It was like the old mind set — the paternalistic plantation mentality — where we told people, ‘We know you’re not capable of success, so we want you to take a few crumbs from the table of prosperity and keep voting for us.’”
Mississippi created a reform program that was and still is one of the most successful in the country. Ranked one of the most generous and strict of programs nationwide, state TANF participants were allowed to retain all earned wages for the first six months on the program but also faced an immediate work requirement and zero tolerance for non-compliance. Nationwide, TANF participants were limited to five years of assistance.
From 1995 to 1998, Mississippi’s TANF caseload decreased by more than 60 percent, the fifth-highest reduction in the nation. Reform fans attributed lower numbers to the success of having more join the work force and become self-sufficient.
Today, Mississippi continues to have a high compliance rate with its TANF participation, and the federal government still continues to award state block grants for TANF, although the amount of the awards has not increased since 1996.
Forest Thigpen, president of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, served as chairman of the Mississippi Task Force on Reducing Out-of-Wedlock Pregnancies, which was established as a part of welfare reform legislation.
Thigpen believes that government is limited in what it can do and that churches and communities will have to make reducing single motherhood a priority to change Mississippi’s outlook.
“Our task force concluded that the key term in ‘out-of-wedlock births’ is ‘wedlock.’ Children need their parents to be married to each other in order to have the best chance at succeeding in life and avoiding the negative outcomes that are so closely associated with growing up in a single-parent family,” Thigpen said.
Is the U.S. definition of ‘poverty’ flawed?
One group of experts believes that poverty numbers may appear high because they are incorrectly calculated.
National conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation believes that U.S. poverty numbers are misleading because the U.S. Census Bureau does not count various forms of welfare as income when making its poverty calculations. The means-tested welfare programs — including TANF; Supplemental Security Income; Earned Income Tax Credit; food stamps; Women, Infants, and Children food program; public housing; and Medicaid — are not taken into account.
In its study “Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What is Poverty in the United States Today?” Heritage Foundation says that while most Americans believe poverty includes homelessness, hunger or malnutrition, only a minority of the nation’s poor experience such conditions. The typical poor household in 2005 had a car, air conditioning, two color TVs, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player and a VCR, according to a U.S. Department of Energy survey.
Ed Sivak, director of the Mississippi Economic Policy Institute, disagrees with the study’s focus.
“I thought (the study) missed the big picture: How do we get more kids to college? How do we get people into good jobs? In the 21st century workers will need credentials beyond high school to earn self-sufficiency wages,” Sivak said.
Sivak feels the study’s title cherry picked examples to create a stir.
“In 2011, is air conditioning really a luxury in Mississippi? I think we can all agree that any household with children should have a refrigerator. (Heritage) failed to address basic conditions in which many poor families find themselves. They’re probably living without health insurance,” he said.
Sivak believes the Census Bureau needs to update its calculation of poverty, but not in the way The Heritage Foundation would favor.
The methodology used by the Census Bureau “does not capture how much it truly costs to get by in this country. An individual may have earnings that put him or her above the poverty line. However, he or she may not be able to afford health insurance or a means to get to work. Even though the earnings for this individual are above the poverty line, he or she is by no means economically secure,” Sivak said.
Instead of a focus on family structure, Sivak believes Mississippi should concentrate on education, economic development and access to child care to reduce state poverty.
Single Mom Births in Miss.
Year 2009 1980
Total births: 42,809 47,821
Births to unwed moms: 55% 28%
Source: Miss. State Department of Health
Poverty rate: 21.8%
Food stamp users: 20.8%
Ave. household median income: $35,693 annually
Source: 2010 U.S. Census and USDA