When Brett Favre was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016, it was the cherry on top of the decades of acclaim he’d earned for his accomplishments as a quarterback.
But the following year, he was trying to stay out of the spotlight. “If you were to pay me,” he asked in a text message to Nancy New of the Mississippi Community Education Center, “is there any way the media can find out where it came from and how much?”
The information Favre wanted to keep private involved the appropriation of millions of dollars of welfare funds to Favre himself and various projects he championed — none of which seemed to have much to do with helping people in need.
At the time, New assured him that his secret would be safe. She would have been right if not for an ongoing lawsuit initiated by Mississippi’s Department of Human Services (DHS) in an effort to get back tens of millions of dollars from Favre and thirty-seven other individuals involved in “questionable” use of welfare funds.
The sums of money in question dwarf any that ever went to the kind of “welfare queens” constantly invoked in old-school conservative anti-welfare rhetoric. In fact, diversion of all that money into the pockets of Favre and the rest of the defendants was enabled by the grotesque “welfare reform” signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996.
“Welfare Queens,” Real and Imagined
When Ronald Reagan unsuccessfully ran for president in 1976, he frequently railed against “welfare queens,” like a “woman in Chicago” who he claimed had “eighty names, thirty addresses,” and “twelve Social Security cards.” This woman’s “tax-free cash income,” Reagan said, was “over $150,000.”
A New York Times story at the time fact-checked Reagan. The basis of his story seems to have been sensationalist newspaper accounts Linda Taylor. The Times noted that while Taylor hadn’t yet been convicted, the state of Illinois wasn’t accusing her of having eighty aliases but four — and defrauding the state not of “over $150,000” but about $3,000.
But few people at the time noticed that Reagan’s anecdote had been debunked. Anti-welfare rhetoric continued to be a big part of Reagan’s pitch when he ran for president again in 1980. Over the next eight years, he oversaw spending cuts to various social services. But the basic framework of the welfare system put in place during the New Deal — under which welfare money was directly distributed to families in need — remained until the presidency of Bill Clinton.
A self-described New Democrat who claimed to be socially progressive but fiscally conservative, Clinton ran on a platform of “ending welfare as we know it.” His claims to social progressivism were a little dubious — for example, Clinton signed the antigay Defense of Marriage Act — but he was telling the truth about his commitment to rolling back the social gains of the New Deal. In 1996 he signed a “welfare reform” law that replaced the New Deal–era Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program with a far more restrictive Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program.
The results were horrific. Extreme poverty among children, for example, nearly tripled after AFDC was replaced with TANF.
At the time all of this was widely celebrated on the grounds that former “welfare queens” had now been given, in a favored Clintonian phrase, “the dignity of work.” In Christopher Hitchens’s 1999 book No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton, he spelled out the grim reality of what this meant in practice:
Those who have been thus “trimmed” from the welfare rolls have often done no more than disappear into a twilight zone of casual employment, uninsured illness, intermittent education for their children, and unsafe or temporary accommodation. Only thus — by their disappearance from society — can they be counted as a “success story” by ambitious governors, and used in order to qualify tightfisted states for “caseload-reduction credits” from the federal government. The women among them, not infrequently pressed for sexual favors as the price of the ticket, can be asked at random about the number of toothbrushes found in the trailer, and are required by law to name the overnight guest or the father of the child if asked. Failure or refusal to name the father can lead to termination of “benefits” or (even better word) “entitlements.” We were once told from the bought-and-sold Oval Office itself, that “even presidents are entitled to privacy”: it seems now that only presidents and their wealthy backers can claim this entitlement.
As part of this Dickensian “reform” effort, money once given directly to poor families was handed out in block grants to the states so state governments could decide how best to use it to reduce poverty. Sometimes they give it to the families, but they have wide latitude to spend it on a variety of “programs viewed as promoting work, reducing out-of-wedlock pregnancies and encouraging two-parent families.”
As a result, it became possible for more than a million dollars of welfare money in Mississippi — the poorest state in the Union — to be spent on paying a retired Hall of Fame quarterback to give motivational speeches. As a wealthy white man, he’s pretty much the opposite of the stereotypical “welfare queen” of old Reagan speeches. But no single mother with a few aliases getting extra checks could hope to compete with fraud on this level.
Legalized Theft From the Poor
The Mississippi DHS alleges that Favre took that money for speeches he never intended to deliver. He’s given it back, although Favre — who earned $140 million as a quarterback, not counting all the money he raked in for promotional deals — is still holding out on a few hundred thousand dollars of interest demanded by the state’s auditor.
A far larger sum of money went toward building a volleyball stadium at Favre’s alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi (aka Southern Miss), where Favre’s own daughter played volleyball. Many of the recently exposed text messages involved Favre’s enlistment of the state’s former governor Phil Bryant to help lobby for that project. (It’s unclear how Bryant or other defendants justified the claim that a new volleyball stadium would promote work or discourage single motherhood, but creative people lusting after grant money have made even more tenuous connections.)
The illegal aspects of the scandal are less disturbing than the underlying legal framework. Favre and the others may have gotten greedy and overstepped the bounds of what was allowed, but what they did was only possible in the first place because Bill Clinton created a massive system of legalized theft from the poor. What if Favre had given the motivational speeches as promised? Would that have justified diverting money originally intended for Mississippians struggling to make ends meet to further line Favre’s pockets?
Even the original AFDC was a miserly means-tested program that fell far short of how a decent society would care for its members. Universal alternatives like a federal job guarantee giving unionized public-sector employment to everyone who wanted it, or a Universal Basic Income on the model of Alaska’s Permanent Fund, would be far better. But directly giving money to people who need it, even in a flawed and means-tested way, was infinitely better than allowing it to be diverted to nonprofits to pay celebrities to give poor people moral lectures that won’t do a goddamn thing to put food on their tables.
It’s easy to see why Favre didn’t want his abuse of the welfare system leaked to the media. But the bigger scandal is the system itself.