Earlier this year, agents from my office arrested a man in Tunica County for embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from the poor. The case is was a reminder that many programs intended to help the poorest Mississippians have often been ineffective or the victim of massive fraud. It’s also a signal that it’s time to take a wholesale review of everything we do that is intended to help low-income folks.
Here are the details of the Tunica case: several years ago, Tunica County started a program to repair low-income homes. The goal was to use the massive amount of casino revenue that had flooded into the county to fix floorboards, busted out windows, or old wheelchair ramps at private residences around the county.
Tunica County ultimately decided, through a series of arrangements, to let a man named Mardis Jones run the program. Jones had a non-profit called Tunica Housing, Incorporated. His non-profit was charged with collecting applications from Tunica residents, finding a contractor to help fix their homes, and then making sure money from the county made its way to the contractor after the repair work was done.
For his trouble, Jones was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees for running this program. Those fees were, apparently, not enough, though. Jones also allegedly embezzled over $765,000 from the program. All told, only about 19% of the funds spent in the program actually went to fix residents’ homes. Records show Jones walked away with about 80% of the program’s spending.
Sometimes someone will tell me, “Shad, Mississippi’s government programs are working well, and of course there will occasionally be some theft, just like a pipe may work well even if there are occasional leaks.”
The Tunica case is not an example of a leaky pipe. It’s an example of the pipe being redirected completely. A whole program was turned on its head. The people who were supposed to benefit did not. It’s no wonder we’ve had trouble solving poverty in places where it has seemed intractable.
Another lesson of the Tunica case is that no amount of money can solve a problem unless the money is spent wisely. For those unfamiliar with Tunica County, the county had a blossoming casino industry that took hold in the mid-1990s. Since then, over $700 million in revenue flowed through the county, according to The Washington Post. The Post wrote a story in 2015 asking where all the casino revenue for Tunica County had gone and mentioned this housing program. Now, in retrospect, the housing program looks to be a sad example of how important oversight can be.
The individual stories in the Post article are tragic, too. One woman featured in the article, a former school teacher, said that she had been told it would be five years before the housing program would get around to fixing her home. It seems the program administrator was simply too busy stealing from the program to help folks like that teacher.
Mississippi needs to take the lesson from this case. We need to rethink how we spend money in programs designed to help the poor. How much are we spending on monitoring the programs compared to the overall program spending? Should it be more? How much spending is going through a non-profit instead of being given directly from a government agency to a recipient? Are the programs effective at all, or should we make a different policy choice altogether?
One thing is for certain: the same old, tired solutions will not make our state stronger. That’s why I’m committed, as your State Auditor, to bring every ounce of energy I have to bear on these problems. When we see money being stolen, we will hold the perpetrators accountable. And when we need to have a larger conversation about how we’re spending money, I will be willing to start it.
Shad White is the 42nd State Auditor of Mississippi