When he played, Brett Favre was endlessly called a "gunslinger" by NFL media members, a characterization that was celebrated, and took him off the hook for his numerous interceptions and indiscretions. Somewhere along the way, as Favre's never-say-die attitude on the football field was repeatedly excused away because he was so often able to dig his teams out of holes that he put them in, he may have come to realize that it could work off the field too.
Favre is now the face of the Mississippi welfare scandal, with pages of documents and old text messages showing how he reportedly acquired millions of federal dollars meant for the poorest people in the state for his own use, a man who made $140 million during his playing career alone treating funds meant for people experiencing the worst of days as his own piggy bank.
He wasn't the only one. Heck, Favre isn't the only Mississippi-bred athlete tied up in this scandal, according to the reporting from Mississippi Today. According to a state lawsuit, former professional wrestler Ted DiBiase, ironically known as the "Million Dollar Man" during his WWF days, and his two sons, Teddy Jr. and Brett, received well over $5 million combined; former running back Marcus Dupree received around $400,000 for "motivational speaking" engagements he never gave; and former Canadian Football League linebacker Paul Lacoste got $1.3 million to conduct three "fitness boot camps" in Mississippi.
From what we know thanks to the reporting of Mississippi Today and the Mississippi Free Press, Favre was allegedly the greediest, getting around $8 million — the bulk of it for the volleyball arena at his alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi, and the rest for a biomed company, Prevacus, in which he was an early investor. True to his never-say-die football ethos, the Associated Press has reported Favre tried to get more, including for an indoor football facility at USM.
He's in a hole completely of his own digging. It doesn't look like he'll be able to get out of it anytime soon. Yet Favre is only the latest individual who won't pay for something with their own money if the public's money is available, especially if it involves funds meant for the most vulnerable among us.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice charged 48 people for allegedly stealing $250 million in monies meant to feed children in Minnesota during the COVID-19 pandemic. The group, tied to a non-profit called Feeding Our Futures, said it was providing meals for thousands of children but prosecutors say only a fraction of the funds went toward feeding children. Cartoonishly enough, one of the people charged allegedly used the website "listofrandomnames.com" to generate names to put on documents, made up children they purported to be helping in order to rake in free money.
In the sports world, the Pegulas, Terry and Kim, didn't need fake spreadsheets or face the scrutiny of prosecutors or state auditors to get their windfall of public money. The couple, who have a net worth of $6.7 billion, didn't have to consider — gasp! — ponying up their own dough to build a much-needed new stadium for the Buffalo Bills. They pulled the time-honored threat to move the team, and Gov. Kathy Hochul was all too happy to acquiesce to their bluff.
Hochul agreed to give them $600 million to go toward a new facility, no-strings-attached public assistance for two of the wealthiest people in the country who don't even call New York their home state.
Where did Hochul get that hunk of cash? Likely not coincidentally, she slashed $800 million from New York's Office of Child and Family Services. That comes from the same state budget in which she allocated more than half-billion dollars for a building that will get used maybe 20 times a year by a small fraction of New York residents.
Seeing a pattern?
Time and again, Americans who live in poverty are told to just work a little more. Get a better education. Learn how to spend money more wisely.
There's rarely discussion of the federal minimum wage (and the minimum wage in 20 states, including Mississippi) being frozen at $7.25 an hour for over 13 years, rarely a discussion of how college costs have risen nearly 170% since 1980 while salaries have stagnated, rarely an acknowledgement that the sad reality is no one knows how to budget money better than a person living in abject poverty, whose entire life is a series of desperate decisions on what to spend their few dollars on, how much they can pay toward utilities to still keep the lights on and the apartment heated, how many times they can get away with washing their work pants in the sink again to avoid having to go to the laundromat.
There's only shame and derision, including from elected officials. The belief that they're lazy or unambitious. And the tropiest trope: all they're looking for is a handout. The why is a little complicated, but much of it is rooted in racism and misogyny.
Many of the women losing out are single mothers, some escaping domestic violence. Some potential recipients are relatives like grandparents who take in children rather than see them become wards of the state. The single mothers in particular work full-time if not well over 40 hours a week, but the wages in Mississippi are so low they're still below the poverty line.
But who in Mississippi got handouts? It certainly wasn't the people the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (or TANF) money was intended for. One in five Mississippians lives in poverty, and that number is higher for the state's Black residents. Yet the number of people who needed that money for basic human needs like shelter who received it is minuscule — as in, less than 1 percent of applicants, according to the most recent data, says Matt Williams, director of research for the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative (MLICCI).
Williams said there are well over 350,000 adults in his state living in poverty; an average of 222 adults a month receive TANF funds. Only 2,650 children receive money.
Those lucky few who have been approved are eligible for $260 a month for a family of three, a recent increase from the $170 a month it had been for years. That's it.
"Even with that increase, it would take the average family of three 352 years of getting paid the full benefit they're eligible for to get what Favre got in one check," Williams said, using the $1.1 million amount Favre got from Nancy New, whose Mississippi Community Education Center received millions in TANF sub-grants.
Favre got the $1.1 million for public service announcements and appearances, and he was allegedly going to put it toward the now-infamous volleyball arena at Southern Miss.
"Even though that is an absurd and extreme example, it truly reflects how state leadership has approached using TANF in the past," Williams said. "They would rather see it go to that than pull their sleeves up and create a cash assistance program that works."
The numbers in Mississippi are particularly grim, making it all the more enraging that the people who need it most aren't just snubbed, they are deliberately neglected. Recent data shows that 44.5 percent of Mississippi residents are still behind on their rent or mortgage and are on the verge of eviction or foreclosure, yet current Gov. Tate Reeves recently returned federal funds meant to help with COVID-19-related rental assistance.
There's so little opportunity to experience upward economic mobility that Williams said data shows that children born in the Mississippi Delta region have basically a 0 percent chance of growing up to out-earn their parents.
In New York, where nearly two-thirds of residents — and a whopping 82 percent of those in the Buffalo region — disapprove of Hochul's financial gift to the Pegulas, advocates say the Office of Child and Family Services was already struggling to keep up with the caseload it had and now will be trying to work with a budget that's nearly 20 percent less than last fiscal year.
Forty-eight people in Minnesota allegedly stole handouts.
Brett Favre reportedly asked for and received multiple handouts.
The state is accusing the DiBiases, Marcus Dupree and Paul Lacoste of getting handouts.
The Pegulas are getting the biggest public handout in the long, gross history of sports teams fleecing cities, counties (Erie County is kicking in $250 million, too) and states into paying their bills for them while they reap the lion's share of profits.
Favre is the face of the welfare scandal in Mississippi — a Welfare Queen, if you will — but he's far from the only wealthy person to realize that taking from the poor is a tried-and-true American way to enrich yourself.