Mississippi Backs Budget-Cutters as State Uses Lifeline

Republican Presidential Candidate Newt Gingrich
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich speaks at a rally at the Jackson Hilton in Jackson, Mississippi. Photographer: Marianne Todd/Getty Images

Like many people in Mississippi, Kevin and Nanine Parker have felt the sting of a strong recession and a weak recovery. Now, no longer able to make ends meet, they’ve reluctantly applied for food stamps.

“It’s been tough for us,” says 61-year-old Nanine. “We’re trying to get a little help. We never had to before.”

Even as they wait for government aid, the Parkers plan to vote tomorrow for a presidential candidate whose proposals will make it harder to get such benefits in the future.

The major Republican contenders in the Mississippi primary -- Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich -- want to turn over to the states federal programs such as food stamps, housing vouchers and Medicaid. That would transform the aid from open-ended entitlements into fixed annual grants while allowing states to impose new conditions upon recipients, ultimately reducing the number helped.

Many voters welcome such proposals. They’re alarmed by the U.S. government’s $15 trillion debt and the cost of programs such as Medicaid, the insurance system for the poor that is jointly funded with states, where spending rose to $275 billion last year from $180.6 billion in 2006. “The system’s been abused,” says Nanine Parker.

Yet with Mississippi already failing to fully fund its obligations, including education, some experts fear that it and other poor states would be overwhelmed by additional responsibilities.

A ‘Disaster’

“It would be an unmitigated disaster,” said W. Martin Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University in Starkville.

The proposal to devolve social programs to the states may draw more attention as the presidential contest arrives in Mississippi and Alabama, two of the nation’s least-affluent states. In Mississippi, 22 percent of the 3 million residents received food stamps in December 2011, the highest percentage in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In both Mississippi and Alabama, median household income is below the national average and poverty rates are above it. Mississippi’s median income of $37,881 in 2010 was only three-quarters of the national figure while the state’s 22.7 percent poverty rate was about one-and-a-half times the national figure.

Culture of Dependency

Republicans say transferring the programs to state control would help end a culture of dependency, curb federal spending and provide more targeted assistance. Those who “depend on the social safety net will be better served by state programs where decisions are tailored to address local issues and concerns,” Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for the campaign of Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, said in an e-mail.

Alice Stewart, who represents the campaign of Santorum, a onetime senator from Pennsylvania, and R.C. Hammond, a spokesman for former U.S. House Speaker Gingrich, didn’t respond to e-mails requesting comment.

Both Mississippi and Alabama are Republican leaning, with many voters critical of what they see as Washington’s excessive regulation and wasteful spending. Residents of both states also receive more from the federal government than they contribute financially, according to the nonpartisan Tax Foundation.

Mississippi ranked second in federal benefits received relative to taxes paid, behind only New Mexico, in a foundation study released in 2007, the most recent assessment available. Mississippians got back more than twice as much in benefits as they paid for and ranked no lower than fourth in any year since fiscal 1981, the study found. Alabama was seventh.

Matter of Race

Still, in 2008, Republican presidential nominee John McCain got 46 percent of the vote nationally and 56 percent in Mississippi.

There are many here who say that race is an unavoidable part of the explanation for what they see as a disconnect.

Mississippi has moved beyond the divisions of the civil rights era: the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers and the killings of three civil rights workers the following year. Today, the international airport in the capital, Jackson, is named for Evers. And Meridian’s Republican mayor, Cheri Barry, said she’s working to establish a civil rights museum in town.

The legacy of such divisiveness isn’t far beneath the surface. “There is something tied to the psyche of the people in the South,” said Oleta Fitzgerald, Southern regional director for the Children’s Defense Fund in Jackson, echoing several others interviewed. “However poor they are, they see poverty as black.”

Racial Equalizer

Margie Watkins, 83, who is white, moved from the Democratic Party to the Republicans so long ago she can’t put a precise date on it. She said the recession’s suffering has been a great racial equalizer.

“Whites don’t say it, but they’re getting help, too,” she said. “They’re not used to having to get help.”

Mississippi’s unemployment rate has been above 10 percent since October 2009; the national rate was at that level for just one month, October 2009.

The Parkers, natives of Little Rock, Arkansas, spent 10 years working in the Mississippi River casino town of Tunica. Kevin, 58, with curly blond hair and rimless eyeglasses, was a pit boss. Nanine, a committed Christian, worked in the cocktail lounge and sometimes helped in the band.

In a good year, their combined income might reach $50,000 to $60,000, Kevin said. This year, it’ll be much less. The couple moved recently to Meridian in eastern Mississippi, a 19th-century railroad town about 20 miles from the Alabama border that anchors a reliably Republican county. There Kevin found work as a hairdresser. A limp economic recovery has done them no favors.

“It’s terrible,” he said. “Business has dropped off so much with gas prices. People are cutting their own hair.”

Calibrating Aid

When social programs are transferred to the states, the formula for allocating the future federal contribution should be calibrated according to individual state’s per capita income or general wealth, said Ron Haskins, a former Republican congressional aide now at the Brookings Institution.

“That was not done very well in welfare reform,” said Haskins, who worked on the 1996 legislation that replaced a New Deal assistance program with less-costly benefits that were limited in duration and required applicants to work.

Mississippi has already fallen short of a 1997 state-funding plan designed to guarantee an “adequate” education by $1 billion over the past five years. The state also allowed a waiting list for child-care help to balloon to almost 13,000 children after federal stimulus funds ran out, according to the Mississippi Economic Policy Center in Jackson.

Women and Children

Poverty, both nationally and in Mississippi, is largely a story of women and children. In the U.S., families headed by a single mother are almost six times as likely to be poor as in two-parent households, according to the Census Bureau. And almost 60 percent of those enrolled in Medicaid are women.

Still, at a time of record federal debt, Republican calls to tighten up on social spending strike a responsive chord even among some who benefit from the programs.

At the Feed by Faith soup kitchen in Meridian, Peggy Coleman, 62, helps some of the city’s neediest, serving a hot lunch every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Coleman started the venture in 2008, after the death of her husband.

“God brought a vision to me,” she said. “He said, ‘This is what I need you to do.’”

Looking to States

In the beginning, volunteers doled out 500 meals each month. In February, they served 1,694. Bill Burdette, a retired Federal Aviation Administration employee who’s become Coleman’s right-hand man, plans to vote for Gingrich, whom he calls “honest” and “brilliant.”

Burdette said he sees the wisdom in giving the states control over social programs. “It’d be a good idea to get the money back to the states and let the states administer,” he said. “There’d be one less pocket to siphon it off.”

The last job Carolyn Smith, 57, can remember holding was at a local McDonald’s and that was years ago. She survives now on government assistance, though she isn’t clear which program. She should apply for food stamps, she says, yet doesn’t have any way of getting to the county office.

Smith said she realizes budget cuts could reach her. “I’m concerned and worried about all of it,” she said. “I just leave that in the hands of God.”

Like many low-income citizens, she won’t vote tomorrow. In the 2008 presidential election, 51.9 percent of eligible voters nationwide with incomes below $20,000 cast a ballot compared with 73.1 percent of those making more than $100,000, according to a May 2010 Census Bureau report.

‘New Faces’

Shirley Deville, 62, deputy director of the Multi-County Community Service Agency in Meridian, said turning food stamps, Medicaid and housing over to a cash-strapped Mississippi government would be “insane.”

Deville, who is black, has spent 36 years trying to help some of the nation’s poorest. In recent years, she’s been seeing “a lot of new faces,” many of them white, whose politics confound her.

“The average person thinks that social programs are for minorities. Well, there is a reason that you’re called a minority,” she added, drawing out the last word for emphasis.

“A lot of the clientele we see would probably vote for one of the Republican candidates, who, if elected and had their choice, would cut out programs like these,” she said. “Someone has convinced them that they’re not part of the problem.”

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