Bret Favre and other cheats
In his successful 1980 campaign for the presidency, Ronald Reagan prominently
featured the prospect of welfare fraud, citing the case of a Chicago “welfare queen” who
defrauded the government of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Since then, policing and
preventing welfare cheats has been a standard plank on the right, a reliable go-to for
conservative politicians portraying themselves as upright stewards of the public purse.
In this hoary old schtick, the welfare cheats are black Americans too lazy to work and
too conniving to be trusted. (Even if white politicians don’t explicitly mention race, their
constituents hear the dog whistle.) GOP leaders are supposedly so worried about
cheating and goldbricking that they set up formidable obstacles for poor people in need
of help — requirements for work, for job training, for parenting classes, for check-ins
Yet, needy families didn’t dream up what is being called the biggest case of welfare
fraud in the history of the state of Mississippi. Nor did poor people profit from it. Instead,
a group of well-to-do politicians, bureaucrats and public figures, including former Gov.
Phil Bryant and football star Brett Favre, allegedly conspired to siphon off millions of
federal welfare dollars — an auditor’s report cited $94 million in questionable spending
— to fund their own personal projects, including a volleyball arena at the University of
Southern Mississippi, where Favre’s daughter played the sport.
This is corruption on steroids, fueled by bottomless cynicism. With about 20 percent of
its residents living below the poverty level, Mississippi is the nation’s poorest state, but it
ranks near the bottom in the amount of money it spends on welfare assistance.
Favre, by contrast, is a rich man who made an estimated $140 million during his football
career. Bryant is well-off and well-connected. It is their morality that is impoverished.
According to emails published by Mississippi Today, the non-profit news organization
that has led reporting on the scandal, their biggest worry about allegedly stealing from
the poor was that they might be caught.
Neither Bryant nor Favre has been charged with a crime, but six others were arrested in
- Last week, John Davis, former head of the Mississippi Department of Human
Services, pled guilty to federal and local charges. He and his associates siphoned off
money to give fake high-paying jobs to family and friends, to send a relative to a tony
rehab facility and for luxury travel, among other things. Favre also reportedly
maneuvered to have $2 million in welfare funds diverted to a pharmaceutical company
he invested in.
This brazen scheme was possible because of a change to federal regulations that
conservative politicians forced through in the mid-1990s: rather than give cash
payments to most poor families, Congress gave money to states in block grants to use
to help the needy as they saw fit. Conservatives insisted you couldn’t just give needy
families cash. They might spend it on steaks instead of ground gristle,
premium gasoline instead of bus tokens.
The simple truth, though, is that the right-wingers who run Mississippi and other
Southern states don’t want to help poor people — especially poor black people. Their
political rhetoric is full of specious advice about folks “pulling themselves up by their
bootstraps,” when they make sure their poor constituents can’t even afford shoes.
Mississippi, remember, is among the GOP-run states that has refused to expand
According to federal data, cash assistance to impoverished families dropped
dramatically after government regulations were changed — and not because needy
families climbed out of poverty. “Most of the post-1994 decline in the cash assistance
caseload resulted from a reduction in the share of eligible families receiving benefits,
rather than a reduction in the number of families meeting states’ definitions of being a
needy family,” according to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service
Still, despite all the faux concern about fraud — in 2017, the Mississippi Legislature
dedicated a piece of legislation to preventing fraud by welfare beneficiaries —
Mississippi’s current crop of GOP leaders has said precious little about this outrageous
theft of money intended for poor people. Instead, there are strong suggestions that state
officials not involved in the grift tried to hamstring investigations.
Clearly, they are not as troubled by fraud as they claim. They just want an excuse to
point an accusing finger at the poor.