HATTIESBURG, Miss. — When I pull up at The Loftin House, a nonprofit shelter that provides assistance to the most vulnerable women in this picturesque college town of nearly 50,000, I’m met by Aialiyah McGee, a soft-faced 19-year-old mother of one who showed up at the shelter a few days before.
We set up shop outside under the house’s carport, sitting at a white table in brown chairs that resemble the woodgrain dashboard of an old-school car. We’re joined by the shelter’s executive director, Paula Fortenberry.
When you first meet McGee, she’s quiet and meek. She can be warm but also skeptical of your presence. She initially gives very little eye contact, but she’s not standoffish. I’ll come to understand why.
Over the next hour, we go over her traumatic life: how she came from a broken home with an addict mother and an absent father; how she got pregnant before reaching her 16th birthday; how abuse and neglect and poverty have already ravaged such a young life. And we’re here to talk about the biggest political scandal to rock this state, which embroils the former governor, the former head of the state’s beleaguered welfare agency, a few pro wrestlers, and Brett Favre, the former University of Southern Mississippi quarterback who played here in Hattiesburg for four years in the late 1980s.
The 2016 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee has found himself repeatedly mentioned in the largest public fraud case in Mississippi history, where there’s been a misappropriation of $77 million intended for welfare recipients.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds of at least $7.1 million were funneled to Favre-involved ventures, not to mention the $1.1 million he received for speeches he never gave (Favre repaid the speech money, sans interest). Those ventures include a new volleyball facility at Southern Miss – also the alma mater of Favre’s daughter, a former volleyball player – and investment in a concussion drug company that Favre was the largest individual outside investor and stockholder in at one point. Six people have been arrested in the case, five of whom pleaded guilty, including a mother-son duo that funneled millions of stolen funds through their nonprofit, Mississippi Community Education Center, to Favre and others.
Favre has consistently denied that he was aware the welfare money was used to fund his personal projects. But while the welfare scandal has taken up most of the national news coverage and public reaction, there’s an underlying and related scandal in Mississippi — and in Hattiesburg, in particular — that is just as shameful and irrefutable as the theft of money from poor people.
For at least three decades, the state has systematically withheld life-changing money and opportunity from poor and Black people, the type of money that pales in comparison with a few million dollars for a volleyball arena.
The entire government bummock has likely kept millions of dollars out of the pockets of its poorest residents, further amplifying the poverty and affliction that has ravaged what’s called the poorest state in the country.
Favre is best known as the former gunslinger quarterback of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, a stardom that led to Wrangler jeans television commercials and a cameo in the 1998 box office hit There’s Something About Mary.
But he’s just as poppin’ in Mississippi.
Favre was raised in Kiln, 70 miles south of Hattiesburg. He played at Hancock North Central High School under his father, Irvin. Current Hancock players play on Brett Favre Field and lift weights under framed jerseys from Hancock, Southern Miss and the Packers.
Favre started as a freshman in 1987 for Southern Miss and left the school as its all-time leader in passing yards, completions, touchdowns and 200-yard games, not to mention various single-season records. He was inducted into the Southern Miss M-Club Hall of Fame in 1997 and the Southern Miss Alumni Hall of Fame and Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 2015. His face is one of dozens of former Southern Miss football players to adorn the famed Eagle Walk that sits beneath M.M. Roberts Stadium.
Back in Kiln, the scandal hasn’t turned everyone against the quarterback.
“Brett Favre didn’t take no money out of anybody’s pockets,” a Kiln man told ESPN earlier this year.
Jerry Rice, born in Starkville and a star at historically Black Mississippi Valley State over in Leflore County, is the favorite Mississippi son for some Black people in the state, while Favre is just a famous name.
Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald, the director of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Southern Regional Office, an anti-child poverty and family resource organization in Jackson, says the white people in the state capitol in Jackson love Favre. They treat him like a celebrity — hence the mess he found himself in.
“I think you gotta go find somebody who thought he [Favre] was important,” Fitzgerald said.
If nothing else, everyone in Hattiesburg seems to know that Favre owns a mansion off of U.S. Highway 98. The 20,000-square-foot, five-bedroom, 3½-bathroom mansion sits on 465 acres in nearby Sumrall. To give you an idea how large that is, the 180-building main campus of Southern Miss — which includes a 36,000-seat football stadium — sits on just 300 acres. Inside you’ll find a barn, a pool, two lakes (each with its own fountain), a sand volleyball court, an irrigation system, a home gym, an outdoor fireplace and a guesthouse.
Meanwhile, at The Loftin House, McGee shares a tiny bedroom with another woman in a home that sits on a single acre of land. She lives with about 20 other women.
The kitchen looks straight out of 1984, the year the house was built, with wood-paneled cabinets and white appliances. The women eat at plastic folding tables, sometimes with plastic utensils. The brick exterior of the ranch-style home gives more of a grandparents vibe than the rock star aura of Favre’s house. Property records show that the shelter house is valued at $66,000; Favre’s home is valued at nearly $3 million.
McGee found The Loftin House in a Google search.
“It said a 4.5 rating,” she said.
The TANF program, better known as welfare, was enacted in 1996 under the Clinton administration, replacing Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which was established in 1935 to give needy families cash benefits.
With the passage of the welfare reform bill in 1996, work requirements and time limits — five years — were instituted, severely impacting the number of people eligible for payments.
TANF still provides cash benefits to poor families (childless adults are not eligible), and also workforce training, child care services, and what’s called “fatherhood and two-parent family formation and maintenance programs,” the latter of which received more than $15 million from Mississippi TANF funds in 2020. But the passage of TANF legislation gave states broad latitude to determine the scope and design of their welfare systems, including who receives benefits, how much they receive, and for how long. States also have the flexibility to divert funds to other state budget areas.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which advocates for needy people in federal and state policy debates, states spend less than 22% of TANF funds on cash benefits for poor people. In 1997, just as TANF was being implemented, states spent 71% on cash benefits.
In 2018, Mississippi had access to $113 million in TANF funds but only 5% went directly to poor people in the form of cash benefits while more than 38% went to “Fatherhood and Two-Parent Family Formation and Maintenance Programs.” Two years before, less than 2% of funds went to the poor. And these benefits primarily go to children who are in the care of caregivers or guardians rather than their birth parents, according to data compiled by the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative. The organization found that from October 2020 to September 2021, TANF cash benefits only went to 222 adults and 2,658 children per month.
On Oct. 1, 2022, just 2,113 Mississippians were receiving cash benefits.
“Mississippi is 3 million people. A [fifth] of the folks are poor, at or below the poverty level. But [people] on welfare now is less than 3,000 people,” said Fitzgerald. “There’s nobody on the rolls.”
John Davis, the former executive director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, pleaded guilty in September 2022 to federal and state charges for his role in directing millions of stolen TANF funds to Favre and others. The hiring of a new Department of Human Services director, Bob Anderson, in 2020 has resulted in the department seeking out more applicants and a suggestion to increase monthly benefit amounts.
In 2021, the state received 1,383 TANF applications; it denied 1,284 of them.
TANF benefits tend to be lower where Black people make up a larger share of the population, such as the South, which was also the case when AFDC was the federal welfare program. States with higher populations of Black people typically have policies that make it easier to kick people off of welfare benefits.
“Mississippi is 3 million people. A third of the folks are poor, at or below the poverty level. But [people] on welfare now is less than 3,000 people. There’s nobody on the rolls.”
— Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald
From 1999 to 2021, Mississippi capped TANF cash benefits at $170 a month for a family of three, the lowest payout in the country. Only due to the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic were benefits increased, in May 2021, to $260 a month.
The Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative estimates that it would take a family of three receiving $260 a month more than 352 years to equal the same $1.1 million payout Favre received for unfulfilled speeches.
Needless to say, the money doesn’t go far.
McGee first applied for TANF in early 2022. She was working in the pharmacy of the local Walgreens making $15 an hour, living with her 3-year-old daughter A’Layia at her grandmother’s house. But between helping with rent, her cellphone plan, groceries, other bills and caring for her daughter, her expenses were close to $2,000 a month.
She was already receiving nearly $300 a month from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps, which she applied for in summer 2021 after graduating from high school.
“I was struggling, didn’t really have nobody or food and stuff,” McGee said. “So I applied for food stamps.”
McGee worked at the Walgreens until the end of 2021, when she got into a “situation” with her grandmother, which forced her to be removed from their shared home and to quit her job. If McGee had access to an additional $260 a month, it would help immensely. Other than what she receives from SNAP, McGee has no income. She has no savings. She doesn’t even have a bank account. For people like McGee, a functional welfare system could remove a burden.
McGee was in a “bad situation” by early 2022 and wanted to apply for TANF to help provide for her daughter. But her grandmother, who had been taking care of A’Layia since she was 9 months old, was already receiving TANF benefits for the infant. At the very least, McGee’s grandmother was one of the few Mississippians to actually receive a cash benefit.
Soon after, McGee left her hometown of Laurel, 30 miles north of Hattiesburg, making temporary stops along the way before landing at the women’s shelter in early October.
“I would rather come here and get myself together on my own instead of going back in that atmosphere and just steadily reliving and repeating that cycle,” McGee said.
Growing up in Madison County, Mississippi, just north of Jackson, Fitzgerald had classmates in elementary school who wouldn’t start school until October and left before the school day let out to go work on farms; they were sharecroppers. Which means there were many children her age who didn’t get educated. And those people had children who are now having children — and already behind.
“Race is at the core of this state, and Black people are always trying to catch up,” said Fitzgerald.
“So we’re running behind ever since slavery.”
Hattiesburg city council member Deborah Delgado was born in 1952, two years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ruled that state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools were unconstitutional. The ruling, according to the Hattiesburg American newspaper, “saddened” then-Mississippi Gov. Hugh White.
Delgado, who has represented Ward 2 since 2001, had minimal interaction with white people throughout her life. She lived in a segregated neighborhood, went to segregated K-12 schools and graduated from historically Black Jackson State University. She now lives in and represents a primarily Black ward (70.3% Black) in Hattiesburg.
Her grandmother would take her downtown to pay the water bill, peeping a young Delgado to the game that was Jim Crow segregation. Delgado was to always take the same route, take the same amount of time, and always stay off the white people’s grass. There was a park located two blocks from city hall that Delgado wanted to go sit in, but yet again her grandmother told her not to set foot in the park.
“First trip [downtown by herself as a child], first thing I did — I didn’t walk, I ran from that house all the way down to that park,” Delgado said from her office at Twin Forks Rising Community Development Corp., a redevelopment initiative created by Delgado to improve Ward 2.
“I sat there and said, ‘This is what it’s like [to sit in a white park].’ ”
Even though legal segregation ended in Hattiesburg in 1965 (it took more than a decade for Mississippi and other states to fall in line after Brown), Black and white people still live in separate communities to this day.
Hattiesburg is 53% Black and 43% white, yet over half of the city’s Black population (55%) is concentrated into just two wards, 2 and 5, which just so happen to be represented by the only two Black members of the city council – Nicholas Brown and Delgado.
“Even though we are greater than 50% of the population, we only control 40% of the voting power on the Hattiesburg city council,” Delgado said.
A recent redistricting plan passed by the city (which Brown, the representative for Ward 5 in Hattiesburg, voted for and Delgado abstained), pushed more Black residents into Brown’s and Delgado’s wards — yet another casualty of Shelby County v. Holder, the landmark 2013 Supreme Court decision that determined that Southern states no longer needed federal preclearance to change election laws.
For Black Mississippians, it can feel like the state is actively working against their best interests. Politicians in Mississippi have been obsessing over welfare recipient fraud in the state for decades, including in 2017 with the passage of the Medicaid and Human Services Transparency and Fraud Prevention Act, which was intended to beef up benefit verification systems and increase penalties for suspected fraud.
But welfare fraud is rare in Mississippi. There were just 21 fraud or misuse-related TANF claims made in 2021, which totaled more than $17,000, according to the Mississippi Department of Human Services. It’s the same case for SNAP: A 2018 report by the Congressional Research Service found recipient fraud in less than 2% of cases.
From welfare corruption to where they’re permitted to live, Black Mississippians sometimes have to work harder to still be running 50 meters behind everyone else.
“That’s how they look at it, like we don’t wanna work, we don’t want to do anything. We do,” said Renae Owens, a Hattiesburg mother of four who received TANF benefits for about a year around 2007.
“Or we just want to lay up and have babies. That’s not the case. We want to take care of our family as well, but we don’t get that same thing that y’all get.”
The application process for welfare assistance can be time-consuming, and it took a while — “a minute” — for Owens to hear back about her application. She would never receive her funds on the first of the month like she was promised; it would be closer to the 10th or 15th, which affected her ability to pay bills.
Welfare applicants have to provide birth certificates, school records, marriage licenses, social security cards, bank and/or property statements, wage stubs, and proof of childcare. They also have to submit to drug tests.
The TANF process mirrors the applications for nonprofits and charities that provide housing assistance. For one organization whose email Owens pulls up on her phone, the requirements include:
- Birth certificates, original or copy
- Proof of income
- Proof of monthly expenses
- Proof of residency
- Proof of previous public assistance
- Proof of active job search
- Proof of events leading to the need for financial assistance
Even then, some organizations will only pay a certain percentage of a bill, and only after the remaining balance has been paid by the applicant.
“So, then you trying to figure things out, if you gotta start selling some things, or if you gotta put yourself in more debt and try to get a loan to try to survive,” she said.
“People think it’s just easy because we are a low-income state. No, it is hard living here in Mississippi.”
You wouldn’t be able to tell how hard it is living in Mississippi just one district over in Ward 1.
The only way to describe the University of Southern Mississippi campus is: pristine. The manicured front lawn accentuates the flower-filled All-American Rose Garden, which also houses the 22-foot eagle statue with its wings flapped open to the skies. Lake Byron is a few meters over, is the size of a pond, and includes a walkable bridge. Across the street sits a new mixed-development building that houses a hotel, sushi spot and a salon. Further down that block is a beignet restaurant.
Deeper into campus, past the aged football stadium where Favre once played, is the volleyball arena — aptly named the Wellness Center — at the center of all the controversy. The building is more impressive than the football stadium, with its grand white entrance that resembles Roman columns.
The Southern Miss campus in Ward 1 (43% white) is not a representative sample of the rest of Hattiesburg. You don’t find many grocery stores or upscale housing in the adjacent Ward 2, which makes up the northeast part of town. Here you find empty gas stations, bail bonds agents and the occasional Dollar Store. There is no visible sign of development in the area.
Turn down any block and you’ll find trashed yards and blue tarps draped over roofs that have been damaged by storms. Many of the homes here have mold and mildew growing in them from constantly receiving rainwater. It can be difficult to distinguish between homes that are legally occupied and those where folks have simply set up shop.
A light brown house with an enclosed porch is missing half of its front screen door, and a tattered hoodie hangs where glass should be. The paint has all but come off the house, with few spots remaining as if the paint was splashed on it by accident. Cinder blocks barely keep the house propped up. A blue house a few blocks away has a mattress in the place of a front door, sheets in the place of window drapes and a stroller perched on the porch. A “Packers Country” sign hangs from one house.
Timberton Park, a public park in Ward 5 that houses multiple playing fields, is locked in by a chain-link fence. The park and other parts of Hattiesburg were heavily damaged during a tornado in 2017, but while other areas were fixed, the park has sat unused for more than five years. The city is still fighting with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to pay for the repairs. Across the street on the campus of William Carey University, a private Christian school, the Larry W. Kennedy Sports Complex looks like it is fresh out of bubble wrap, not a blade of grass out of place.
Home ownership isn’t common in the area. Just 38% of homes in the city are owned by its occupants, nearly half the rate for the rest of the country (64.4%). There’s a lack of safe, sanitary, and decent affordable housing for people in this city. The Mississippi Regional Housing Authority for the southern part of the state says it currently manages 930 affordable rental assistance units in 10 counties and administers nearly 7,000 Section 8 housing vouchers in 14 counties.
“Y’all are pushing people, Black people, to go down to the ghetto where, yeah, I can afford it … but I ain’t gonna be able to sleep at night because I gotta make sure my family and my kids are safe,” Owens said.
“It’s like you just want us to be down all the time and never want us to come up.”
She’s struggling to find housing in a rental market that has exploded since the onset of the pandemic. When her family moved into her rented home in February 2020, rent was $900 a month. Owens said she saw the same place posted for $1,150 a month recently. That’s a 30% increase in less than three years.
Were there any improvements to the property?
“No, I had mold,” she said.
Getting housing — even the substandard variety in parts of Hattiesburg — is difficult.
“They either wanna run your credit, or they either telling you you don’t make as much, and you here in Mississippi, you really don’t get that much,” Owens said. “Or you gotta have a master’s degree in order to get a decent job that’s paying enough. It’s always been hard.”
Hattiesburg’s unemployment rate (3.3%) is lower than both Mississippi’s (3.8%) and the rest of the country’s (3.7%). But despite such a low unemployment rate, nearly 1 in 3 Hattiesburg families makes less than $33,000 a year. Delgado says that about 30% of the people in Ward 2 earn less than $15,000 a year.
Delgado says that many city employees live in her ward, many making less than $15 an hour. She knows of city workers who work multiple jobs. A white City of Hattiesburg pickup truck sat outside a home in Ward 2 that was raised on wooden stilts. A man struggled to walk up the flight of stairs to his front door.
I ask Delgado if the problems affecting poor people in Hattiesburg stem from the local government not having enough money. She said there’s money, just a lack of focus on where to spend it.
A new overpass is being built to quell congestion on the streets. A $30 million, 90,000-square-foot police precinct was completed in September.
“Everything seems to take priority over paying employees a living wage,” said Delgado, who voted in favor of the public safety complex last decade.
The north and east sections of Ward 2 are separated by two rivers, the Bouie and Leaf, creating a fork in the city, hence Twin Forks. FEMA has designated parts of the city as high-risk areas for flooding.
A 2013 tornado with wind speeds of up to 145 mph tore through Hattiesburg and the surrounding areas, injuring 71 people and causing millions in damage. Two high schools had damaged athletic facilities — Favre helped raise $2 million for the restoration of the football field at Oak Grove High School, according to Sports Illustrated. Southern Miss had damages to buildings and lost 75 trees on its campus.
Southern Miss recovered from the storm. The people in Delgado’s ward did not. Delgado estimates that homes on seven blocks of the ward were destroyed during the tornado and have not been rebuilt.
Everyone interviewed for this story is skeptical about what will come of the scandal.
Davis was originally scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 2, but his sentencing was delayed Jan. 27. Nancy New and her son, Zachary, who ran the nonprofit at the center of all of it, both pleaded guilty to fraud, bribery of public officials, among other charges. The pair faces a combined 174 years in prison.
Favre hasn’t been criminally charged. When interviewed by the FBI in 2020, Favre was asked just one question by agents, his attorneys told Mississippi Today in September 2022. He is among 38 defendants, along with Ted DiBiase, the former pro wrestler, and his two sons, who were being sued by the Mississippi Department of Human Services in 2022 to recoup some of the stolen TANF funds.
“I just don’t trust the system to police that strata as much as they would poor people,” said Clarence Magee, who has been the president of the local chapter of the NAACP since 1971 and is old enough to have paid a poll tax.
And why is that?
“Because of the past history,” the 90-year-old said with a chuckle.
“I’m really ready for them to start arresting people,” said Paheadra Robinson, president of The Bratton Group, which provides management and operating support for nonprofit organizations, including the CDF. “Because had it been the reverse, had it been the applicants that had [stolen] $700, they would’ve been arrested. They would’ve done a perp walk.”
Owens said corruption of this scale only happens when powerful people are never told no, never put in check.
“Brett Favre, he just needs to be put in his place,” she said.
After an hour, McGee has cried, she’s laughed, she’s paused to consider every answer.
When rehashing what she’s experienced in her two decades on this earth, she walks me through the pitfalls of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, and how adults and kids — particularly of the Black variety — are continually let down by the system supposedly designed to help them.
Despite the continuous coverage of the scandal, especially by the dogged reporting of the Mississippi Today newspaper, McGee was unaware that millions of dollars intended for the most needy in Mississippi, people like her, had even been stolen. She didn’t know those funds were used on a volleyball facility at a school she never had a chance to attend. McGee didn’t know those funds were used to pay for the drug rehab treatments of the son of DiBiase, a man who used to rock a gold-and-silver championship belt outfitted in dollar signs.
When she’s made aware of the theft, she’s taken aback.
“I feel like they’re selfish, and that kind of makes me mad because it’s people that [are] really out here that need that and they’re giving it to people that already got it,” she said.
So, we finally get to one of the main characters of this entire scandal and conversation.
Do you know who Brett Favre is? Have you ever heard that name?
McGee shakes her head.
What about the Green Bay Packers?
She shakes her head again.
“I don’t watch football.”