Navigating the Mississippi Welfare Program Without Political Ties


Jared South was a model client of the Mississippi welfare agency.

A photo of South and details about her life appear on the Mississippi Department of Social Services website on a page dedicated to the agency success stories. The ministry used South’s experience in its workforce program as an ideal example.

Mississippi Today caught up with South in 2020 to find out how the state social safety net helped the young man improve his life, but discovered that days after MDHS documented South’s story, the agency l cut services because he lost the car he used to get to work.

Young, childless men are especially unlucky when it comes to aid programs offered by the welfare agency — unless they’re tied to someone with ties to the state government. Mississippi Today’s investigation, “The Backchannel,” sheds light on the depth of nepotism at MDHS during the government of the day. The administration of Phil Bryant, including the preferential treatment given to the governor’s wayward relative.

READ MORE: Governor Phil Bryant turned to welfare officials to save his struggling nephew

Bryant and South’s great-nephew, two young white men from Mississippi who didn’t complete their traditional high school education, share a lot in common, except for their relationships. Bryant told Mississippi Today he thinks his great-nephew is exactly the kind of person MDHS exists to help.

“How come when he (Phil Bryant) was helping his nephew, he didn’t visit the other people who were on the program,” South recently told Mississippi Today. “Do you understand what I’m saying? He never visited any of the students who were on the program. Why? Where is your heart? Why are you really into this? You want to help your nephew with this program, but at the same time, how much do you really care about those people in the program who are also in your nephew’s situation?”

“I feel like if you’re going to help your nephew, at least stick your neck out to see who else is out there, to get a better idea of ​​your nephew.” At the bare minimum,” he added.

South had a GED, had a patchy work history, received food stamps, and was homeless for several years throughout her twenties. Several years ago, he enrolled in a vocational training program through the Mississippi Department of Social Services Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

South has demonstrated a strong work ethic in the EDGE program, an acronym for “ethics, discipline, goals, employment.” He worked his way up to “gold” status on the WorkKeys assessment, a test used nationally to assess a person’s career readiness. The administrators of the program even called him the “MVP” of his cohort.

Within months, South completed the academic portion of the program, which consisted of classes and watching training videos at the local Itawamba Community College campus. His job coordinator asked him to choose a future career, and South chose vet tech — “the only career I could think of,” he said.

He later told Mississippi Today that he felt pressured to make a decision and pressured to choose one of the few careers that had a clear educational path; South’s coordinator told him he could enroll in the veterinary program at Mississippi State University.

The EDGE program connected South with a volunteer position at the local Humane Society animal shelter. There he worked for free wash kennels in return for on-the-job training in basic animal health care, like learning how to administer vaccines, with the idea that he would eventually get gainful employment. in the field. South had agreed that he would use his aunt’s car for transportation, but after a few weeks of work and a flat tire, she took the car back. He could no longer go to work.

“They were like, ‘Well, basically, you had a hit and you missed it. So after all that, we have to let you go. It was like, ‘There’s nothing else we can do for you,’ and they released me. That was it,” South told Mississippi Today in 2020.

“I lost the car, I lost the job, and that was the end of the program for me,” South said. “I know you wanted a non-depressing story but I don’t have one for you.” That’s what happened.”

At the time, the Mississippi Department of Social Services was increasingly outsourcing its services to two nonprofit organizations to run a program called Families First for Mississippi, which was supposed to help people like South find jobs and connect to basic resources. . South went to the Families First office in northern Mississippi when he was homeless to try to find affordable housing, but it never helped.

When Bryant’s great-nephew left prison in 2019 after a car burglary conviction, the Families First program almost immediately began paying the young man, while top state welfare officials s cared for him carefully.

South, on the other hand, said he lost all access to department benefits when it kicked him out of the EDGE program. “I was basically red-flagged,” South said.

A screenshot of the Mississippi Department of Social Services website in August 2020

A plate for EDGE says participation in the program won’t affect a customer’s SNAP benefits — but that wasn’t the case for South. He has had no interaction with the agency since, he said, “except once in a while they call me for an investigation.”

South, now 30, is now between jobs. After a recent eviction, he lives in a hotel. But South’s smiling face still appears on the MDHS website. His story is actually the only entry on the “Hit” page.

“I’m still their little pin on the wall,” he said when he found out. “Oh my God, this is frustrating.”

While in the MDHS program, South wrote an essay about her journey. The welfare agency published an excerpt and titled it “a story of struggle.” Mississippi Today publishes the full essay below:

I must admit that I am in a rather difficult life situation. I have a trivial limit to sanitation, food and water services. I am currently enrolled in a government funded program through EBT that helps me find employment opportunities, through which I acquire limited transportation, incentive pay cards (through strict participation), training courses employment, a paid temporary internship, and SNAP EBT benefits.

At the moment, I am unemployed without a car, without sufficient housing, without a smartphone or cash. I’m pretty much the living definition of ample limitations.

I can’t say it’s anyone’s fault other than mine. I put myself in this situation. I cannot, am not, and will not blame anyone else for this outcome. Yes, maybe I was influenced to make some of my choices, good or bad, but overall I made all of my choices. Even after losing my mother at a young age, along with friends and family to car accidents, overdoses, and house fires, my choices for progression were surely mine.

I have seen demons haunt and destroy homes, and angels heal with a light touch of adoration. Basically, I have experienced a wide variety of life. Over the past few weeks I have realized where I am now in life and how I got here. It could still be so much worse because if it wasn’t for my dad right now, I’d be cold.

During my moments of struggle, I have witnessed and/or experienced some of the most heartbreaking situations. Homeless, starving, altered, involved in drugs, prostitution, job loss, theft and also death. Most of my friends and family mostly live in prison, in pain and poverty.

Yet, I tell you, it’s all me. I chose to smoke and drink and get involved in bad choices, bad situations, and bad influences, instead of focusing my time on better possible possibilities. I lost my temper and quit my job(s). I’m where I am because that’s honestly what I wanted. I chose this life completely by myself. I had many friends, relatives, even co-workers and religious organizations who offered me positive help and I neglected it. I wanted what would make me happy right away, or at least get me by.

I can still see the silver lining shining. Over the past few months, with much principled guidance, I have opened my eyes to positive concrete possibilities. I am now pursuing, obediently, a solid career. As I said, I am currently enrolled in job certification training courses.

I fully understood that life is not necessarily about what I want to do, but rather what I have to do, in order to be able to seize the opportunity, to accomplish my desires. So I set some achievable goals to achieve my main goal. I am currently prospecting to enroll in training in manufacturing techniques, in order to establish a concrete foundation and develop a modest income, to indulge later in my true passion as a certified pet trainer, and in time, become an assistant veterinary technician.

In conclusion, it’s always an honor to be alive, even if it’s always a struggle to live. I can only blame myself for my successes, as well as my failures. Thank you all for your involvement which helped me. If through all of this I have indeed acquired one line of advice to give, it would most certainly be: “If it isn’t good, just, or worthy of grace, it isn’t worth playing a game for.” of your life. So make sure what you’re doing is also what you want to tell someone else tomorrow night.

This is a supplement to part 5 of Mississippi Today’s “The Backchannel” series which examines former Governor Phil Bryant’s role in running his welfare department in what officials called the biggest embezzlement scheme in state history.

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