Last year, 11,717 low-income residents of Mississippi applied to get a meager government benefit to help them make ends meet. The state’s welfare program, part of federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), gives a maximum of just $170 a month to a family of three. These applicants had applied hoping to get at least that crumb of cash assistance.
But out of the pool—more than 11 thousand—only 167 people were actually approved and enrolled in the program, according to state data obtained by ThinkProgress. Every other applicant was denied or withdrew, resulting in an acceptance rate of just 1.42 percent. Statistically speaking, it’s more like a rounding error.
The numbers follow a disturbing trend in the state over the past several years. Between 2003 and 2010, according to a report by the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative (MLICCI), roughly half of the applicants to the state’s TANF program were rejected, already a large share of poor people denied assistance. But then in 2011, the rejection rate catapulted to 89 percent. It has gradually increased every year since.
States are generally incentivized to reduce their TANF caseloads, given that any unused money can be redirected to other purposes. But Mississippi stands out for its astonishing rejection rate.
“Mississippi appears to be a huge outlier,” said Liz Schott, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. No other state has a rejection rate above 90 percent; the closest is Texas, which rejected 89.7 percent of applicants in 2015. “It does stick out like a sore thumb,” said Nisha Patel, former director of the Office of Family Assistance within the Administration for Children and Families, which overseas TANF.
The numbers shock even people familiar with state and federal welfare programs. Matt Williams, research director at MLICCI, called the sharp uptick in denials in 2011 “really drastic.” Schott said she didn’t believe the data was actually valid until looking at the numbers provided to ThinkProgress. Patel said she was “quite taken aback” by the data.
Unexplained jump in denials
No one seems able to explain what’s behind the enormous rejection rate.
“We’ve been trying to figure it out. The big question is why,” Williams said.
The state did not respond to repeated requests from ThinkProgress for an explanation of what changed, but it did send a statement saying, “Upon review of our caseload, there are a significant number of TANF applications being denied; however, there are many reasons the denials are taking place.” Those include failing to meet eligibility criteria, unresolved noncompliance issues, an ongoing mandatory work sanction period, unverified compliance with upfront requirements, failing to provide necessary data, voluntarily quitting or being fired from a job for one’s own behavior, failing to cooperate with child support enforcement, failing to show up for appointments, or voluntarily withdrawing an application.
Officials have also not responded to state lawmakers who are asking the same questions. “It’s been tough… just to get information from the Department of Human Services on what’s actually going on to explain… why people aren’t getting qualified,” said state Rep. Jarvis Dortch (D), who’s on the committee that overseas the department. “We haven’t been able to get any answers from them.” He hopes to hold a hearing this summer to get better answers.
Williams’ organization has pored over all the details of Mississippi’s TANF program and come up empty-handed. “We’ve not been able to isolate it to one particular piece of legislation or policy change,” he said.
Deterring applicants by creating more barriers
There are some factors that have made the process of getting approved for assistance more difficult for applicants. In 2006, the state passed legislation that requires an upfront job search. While all states require recipients to either work or spend time job searching or training, Mississippi now makes residents look for work or attend orientation programs before their applications can be approved — without any of the supports TANF can provide, like childcare and transportation subsidies.
And the first time an applicant fails to comply with work requirements, she’s barred from the program for two months, longer than the average duration in other states.
Then in 2014, the state put a drug testing policy in place that requires all applicants to be screened for drug use. If their answers to a questionnaire makes them suspect, they must take a drug test in order to receive benefits. Some people may be rejected because they can’t follow up on a second visit to complete the test, while others may simply refuse.
The state has other punitive aspects of its program: time limits, a cap on benefits beyond a certain family size, and sanctions that mean if one person in a family loses benefits, everyone loses benefits.
“There’s a lot in terms of policy that all melds together and creates certainly a deterrent effect and a complex system,” Williams said.
An invisible change in policy
Still, Williams said, “I can’t imagine that would explain all of the drop in approved applications.” None of the policies that were passed match up to the jump in rejections.
Something else is going on.
One possibility is that this isn’t due to any particular policy change on the books, but a shift in culture or goals that wouldn’t be officially reflected anywhere.
States are required to send a caseload reduction credit report to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services every year that includes any policy changes that would account for a decline in enrollment. But although Mississippi shared its 2016 report with ThinkProgress, that report didn’t explain the decline. “Since most of the decline is not due to policy changes identified [in the report], I would guess that whatever is driving the recent application denial change is more of a process (perhaps application system) or culture change,” Schott emailed after reviewing the document.
“A lot of individual case workers do have a lot of discretion,” Williams said. They decide how much effort to put in to work with a particular applicant and get them through the process. “That’s something that… is certainly different from county to county. When I talk to recipients, their experiences can be very different depending on where they are.” They may have been directed to simply be less helpful than before.
The state may also have made procedural or process changes that wouldn’t show up in any reports. But when Schott looked at Mississippi’s policy manuals, she couldn’t identify anything that happened around 2010 to explain the dramatic uptick in rejections.
“They could have made a policy or process decision [amounting to] ‘we’re going to do something so that virtually nobody can get on,’” Schott said. “We just don’t know what it is.”
“The change is so dramatic that there has to be something,” she said. But, she added, “I am stumped.”
Dortch sees politics at play. He noted that 2011 was the year that current Republican governor Phil Bryant won, as well as the year that Democrats lost control of the state House. “Since then, Republicans have been in charge,” he said.
Quietly sinking into even deeper poverty
It’s hard to know for sure what has happened to all of the people Mississippi has rejected from TANF and how they’re surviving. “There’s always the chance that someone who is denied reapplies and gets approved at another point in time,” Williams said. But, he added, “A lot is required of people to become eligible, and once they go through all those administrative hurdles, to only have their application denied, I think most people will probably not try to apply again.”
Since welfare reform, more people go without either cash welfare or income across the country; by 2008, 20 percent of single mothers were living this way. Extreme poverty, or people living on less than $2 a day, has also risen dramatically since then.
“I think a lot of people just end up living in extreme poverty,” Williams said.
What’s going on in Mississippi is a direct result of the way TANF functions today. In 1996, the welfare reform bill signed into law by President Bill Clinton turned it into a block grant in which states get a fixed amount of money from the federal government to run their programs. With that change came a lot more discretion in deciding how they would run them and less oversight of the decisions they make. It also ended the entitlement structure that meant anyone who was eligible was supposed to get benefits; today, states can decide who does and doesn’t get help.
So while a state has to submit its plans for any large-scale policy changes to HHS, the federal government doesn’t have any authority to step in if things appear to be overly punitive. “There is no minimum benefit level or… certain threshold of families in poverty to make sure you’re serving,” Patel said. HHS reviews plan changes, but “really the review is just whether it complies with federal law.”
“If Mississippi made decisions within the scope of federal law,” she added, “unfortunately, there would be very little HHS could do to deter them.”
It’s a case study in what can happen without oversight. “Mississippi is a good example of so many problems in the block grant,” Schott said.