Brett Favre scandal reignites decades-old debate over welfare reform

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Former NFL star Brett Favre is at the center of a public corruption scandal in Mississippi in which state lawmakers have been accused of misappropriating as much as $94 million in federal welfare funds between 2017 and 2020.

Recently uncovered text messages between the Hall of Fame quarterback and then-Gov. Phil Bryant suggest that the pair collaborated in an alleged scheme to secure $5 million in public funds to build a volleyball stadium at the University of Southern Mississippi, where Favre’s daughter played volleyball. Although the accusations against Favre have garnered the bulk of public attention, they represent a relatively small portion of a massive scandal that has led to criminal charges against six people and a sprawling lawsuit with dozens of defendants. Neither Favre nor Bryant has been charged with a crime. Favre has repeatedly said he was not aware the money came from federal welfare funds.

The scandal has brought renewed attention to the U.S. welfare system and how reforms passed during the 1990s often mean that only a small percentage of welfare funds end up in the hands of needy families.

Most people generally understand welfare to be money sent directly from the government to people in need. For most of the 20th century, that’s largely how the system functioned. Then in 1996, President Bill Clinton signed legislation that dramatically restructured how welfare works. Rather than sending payments straight to individual families, the current program — Temporary Assistance for Need Families (TANF) — gives the money to the states as a block grant.

The new law also expanded the scope of how those funds can be spent and lets states decide where they should go. In addition to support for struggling families, TANF funds can be used on programs viewed as promoting work, reducing out-of-wedlock pregnancies and encouraging two-parent families.

In 2020, less than a quarter of welfare funds given to the states was sent directly to families, according to an estimate by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The rest went to things like college grants, worker training programs and child care services. Some states have also used TANF money to fund relationship classes for young couples and anti-abortion centers. In Mississippi, the state with the highest poverty rate in the nation, just 5% of TANF funds were used for direct cash payments in 2020.

Why there’s debate

In the eyes of many critics of the 1990s reforms, Mississippi’s scandal is a symptom of how TANF gutted welfare and replaced it with a system that they believe was intentionally designed to prevent struggling Americans from receiving the support they need. Many left-leaning policy experts argue that a return to the previous system — in which money went straight from the federal government to poor families and strict rules like work requirements didn’t exist — would restore the original purpose of welfare, reverse policies built on racist stereotypes of “welfare queens” and make it all but impossible for corrupt lawmakers to misspend funds.

Conservatives, though they condemn the alleged illegal activity that took place in Mississippi, argue that welfare reform has been mostly successful. They believe the emphasis on work built into the TANF system has prevented millions of families from falling into a “welfare trap” that they say leaves poor people dependent on unending government support.

But others make the case that welfare, no matter what form it takes, will never effectively reduce poverty because it only helps a small number of the poorest Americans. These advocates argue that universal programs that provide support to all but the richest families would be much more effective. There’s a lot of debate over what such a program might look like — whether it might be a revival of the expanded Child Tax Credit, an alternative plan for paying parents championed by Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, or universal basic income proposals backed by some on the left — but the view is generally that welfare should be scrapped and replaced with a more comprehensive program.


Stereotypes about poor people that need to be eradicated

“Welfare cheaters. You may think you know who they are. The story that certain racists have been peddling for decades is simple: Welfare cheats are big, fat Black women in old Cadillacs with a gaggle of little kids scrambling around in the back seat. … As we’ve seen in a dramatic fashion, truth has nothing to do with the confirmation of these stereotypes.” — Frances Coleman,

Welfare reform has been a big success

“Conservative-led welfare reform in 1996 replaced a no-strings-attached cash welfare system with a system that conditioned assistance on work. … Welfare reform led to dramatic increases in labor force participation among single mothers, which translated into increased income and lower poverty.” — Angela Rachidi, Washington Examiner

States should have strict rules on how they’re allowed to spend welfare funds

“While Mississippi had a slush fund for personal gain and favors, TANF acts as a slush fund for state governments everywhere. Its structure as a block grant, its lack of oversight, and the paternalistic structures of its 1990s policy goals have allowed states to use the money on almost anything they want, whether filling budget holes or funding lawmakers’ pet projects.” — Jack Meserve, Vox

Misguided fears about welfare fraud prevent the program from working as intended

“To fix its broken welfare system, the U.S. must move away from its fixation on fraud, exclusions by design, and the stigmatization of people in poverty. Only then will it benefit from the transformative results that we know social protection can yield.” — Olivier De Schutter, Common Dreams

A simple child allowance would be much more effective

“The child allowance is so much bigger, simpler, and more effective that politicians, policy experts, and parents are wondering whether the old welfare program needs to—or should, or will—continue to exist. Is this finally the end of welfare as we know it? There’s a valid argument to be made that it should be.” — Annie Lowrey, The Atlantic

Getting people to work is still the best anti-poverty program

“Welfare reform is responsible for the decline in the contribution of cash transfers to income. Yet by incentivizing work, it is also responsible for some of the increase in private income. … The increase in private income is, by far, the most important driver of increases in the well-being of single parents. To neglect this is to downplay the importance of economic growth and human capital investment in poverty reduction, and the crucial role of work incentives within anti-poverty programs.” — Scott Winship, Dispatch

Outdated ideas of morality must be stripped out of the welfare system

“Congress enshrined into law the opinion that mothers should be married. However hollow that 1996 avowal to marriage was, Congress has not, in the 25 years since, said that mothers should have paid family leave, or affordable child care, or a wage that lifts a family out of poverty. The persistence of poverty among unmarried mothers offers a reminder that economic problems need economic solutions.” — Kathryn A. Edwards, Bloomberg

The pandemic showed the benefits of giving most Americans money with no strings attached

“The pandemic exposed how close so many Americans are to financial ruin. It also made clear that telling them to be more enterprising or self-sufficient doesn’t keep them out of destitution. Now we know for sure what does work: offering them financial assistance without forcing them to prove they deserve it. It’s never been clearer that American poverty is a policy choice.” — Bryce Covert, New Republic

Programs that only help a small number of people are doomed to fail

“Hyper-targeting welfare programs to certain groups breeds resentment. Programs that are universal or nearly so, like Social Security, enjoy widespread political support. Programs that aren’t, don’t.” — Farhad Manjoo, New York Times

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