Before the Great Depression, public welfare in Mississippi consisted of a collection of disjointed programs. The state provided services for persons with mental illness, mental deficits, and blindness. Support of unemployed and chronically poor persons through direct relief was considered the responsibility of county governments or private charities. The legislature enacted a children’s pension law in 1928 that authorized county officials to use a portion of their poor law funds or general treasuries to provide care for dependent and needy children, but several counties chose not to implement this program.
In 1930 Frank Bane, a national authority on welfare, conducted a study of Mississippi’s public welfare structure, concluding that while various county and state offices tried to meet the needs of disadvantaged citizens, the lack of coordination resulted in waste and inefficiency. He recommended the creation of a state department of welfare capable of providing direction and supervision related to the distribution of poor relief. Unlike their counterparts in some states, however, officials in Mississippi were slow to see the need for statewide action, likely because substantial authority was vested in county governments rather than because they feared that providing relief for the poor would make them dependent.
The problem of public welfare became more acute as the Great Depression worsened and was further exacerbated in Mississippi by the drought of 1930–31. Many Mississippians lost their homes and farms. When Martin Sennett Conner was inaugurated as governor in 1932, the General Fund of the State Treasury contained $1,326. Conner had to personally pay to feed the patients at the Mississippi State Hospital in Whitfield.
The creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) in 1932 allowed states to obtain loans for poor relief. Conner applied and was told that Mississippi would receive a loan only if someone knowledgeable in public welfare were brought in to help direct the distribution. Conner turned to Bane for help. Bane, now the executive director of the American Public Welfare Association, recommended an association employee, Aubrey Williams, an Alabama native who became the first director of Mississippi’s state-level welfare department.
Williams developed a structure whereby counties could establish local relief offices. He selected each county director and established a program that required citizens to do some useful work in return for relief payments. Williams’s tenure lasted just over one month. His successor, George Power, was a banker who had recently served as the clerk for the Mississippi House of Representatives.
While the need for an RFC loan to fund a relief program necessitated the establishment of a state public welfare office, most Mississippi leaders believed that the state’s public welfare agency would exist only temporarily, since the jobless could return to work as soon as economic circumstances improved. Federal officials also encountered difficulty in securing a commitment from the state to shoulder more of the burden of providing for its unemployed. After the Social Security Act of 1935 required all states to have public welfare plans to continue receiving federal funds, Governor Conner convened the legislature to create a permanent state welfare program. He and state senators clashed over the selection of welfare board members, resulting in a stalemate that dragged on until the state created a temporary welfare department to be administered by a relief board.
Labor and race issues have always influenced Mississippi’s public welfare programs. Relief benefits were kept low to ensure that laborers would accept available jobs, no matter how meager the pay. Federal officials noted during the 1930s that planters used their political power to put in place a system under which their tenants did not receive welfare during planting and harvesting periods but returned to the relief rolls at other times of the year. Planters thus evaded responsibility for supporting their tenants, both black and white, when their labor was not needed. Many critics of current welfare policies argue that the practice continues today with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. They contend that many employers have taken advantage of workers whose salaries are subsidized by job training programs and but have provided permanent employment to very few Mississippians.
In addition, from the earliest days of public welfare, federal officials noted that black Mississippians received fewer benefits than did whites. Even skilled African American laborers were more likely to receive unskilled, low-wage relief positions than were white workers. Conversely, Fred Ross, who served as commissioner for the State Department of Public Welfare during the early 1960s, charged that African Americans paid only a small portion of Mississippi’s taxes yet received a disproportionate share of welfare benefits.
African Americans long complained of unfair treatment in segregated county welfare offices. Prior to his murder in Neshoba County in 1964, civil rights worker Michael Schwerner attempted to help a young black man with a mild mental impairment who was denied assistance by the Lauderdale County Department of Public Welfare, a predicament that affected many other black citizens in other counties as well. In 1967 members of the Mississippi State Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights heard testimony from black citizens about how welfare officials refused to comply with the requirement to provide a reason when denying benefits.
While many practices within the welfare department changed during the next two decades, and more African Americans took on employment and leadership roles, county welfare offices remained plagued by complaints of poor service. Many white Mississippians continued to cling, at least in part, to the belief that African Americans received more than their share of welfare benefits. In addition, critics argued that welfare programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children encouraged promiscuity and illegitimacy. These beliefs played a large role in the US Congress’s passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which has led to stricter and supposedly time-limited welfare eligibility.
Control over welfare jobs and funds has also remained an issue in Mississippi. The reorganization of the executive branch of state government during the administration of Gov. Ray Mabus (1988–92) had perhaps the most critical effect on the state’s public welfare system. Public welfare had previously been administered by an independent department governed by a board but now became part of a superbureaucracy, the Department of Human Services. The board was phased out, increasing the governor’s authority to hire and fire directors. Critics have contended that the public welfare program now suffers from too much political interference, and public welfare remains a politically charged enterprise. As of 2015 Mississippi ranked last among states in the value of public welfare benefits offered.
- W. F. Bond, The First 20 Years of Public Welfare in Mississippi (1965)
- James R. W. Lieby, Frank Bane: Public Administration and Public Welfare (1965)
- Howard W. Odum and D. W. Willard, Systems of Public Welfare (1925)
- Fred A. Ross, Public Welfare in Mississippi: Past and Present (1965)
- Fred A. Ross, Racial Amalgamation Propanda versus Segregation and Racial Cooperation: An Address by Fred A. Ross (1963)
- Michael Tanner and Charles Hughes, The Work versus Welfare Trade-Off: Europe (2015)
- Vincent J. Venturini, Oral Histories with Mississippi Department of Public Welfare Social Workers Who Began Their Careers in the 1960s (1998)
- Vincent J. Venturini, Oral History on Gwendolyn Loper (2002)
- Welfare in Mississippi: A Report of the Mississippi State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights (1969)