Low-Wage Work in Mississippi: Enhancing Opportunities for Families

The purpose of this study is to understand the needs of low-wage workers in Mississippi, what the state is doing to address those needs, and what additional policies and programs can be implemented to address the myriad unmet needs of this vulnerable population. Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the country, with one of the lowest labor force participation rates; poverty, unemployment, and underemployment disproportionately affect racial minorities and women.

Mississippi ranks as the most dependent state; state dependency refers to how much each state receives back in federal dollars versus what they contribute to the federal treasury in taxes (Kiernan 2016). Mississippi gets $3.00 in federal funds for every dollar it contributes to the federal government (Tierney 2014). Neighboring Alabama and Louisiana also rank high as dependent states. This is primarily due to the high poverty rates in these states that result in them receiving a disproportionate share of federal funds through anti-poverty programs such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (Tierney 2014).

 The State of Mississippi is focused on helping residents find work. One of the primary investments the state has made is the introduction of MS Works in 2015, a website for job seekers and employers. In addition to listing open jobs and allowing people to apply directly through their website, the program is designed to help workers explore ways to increase their job market skills. Thus, an applicant can be directed to a community college program where they can increase their skill set and marketability. This is designed to help the state address what they perceive as a shortage of mid-skill level workers. Mississippi has also made employment, job training, or volunteering a requirement for SNAP (food stamps) beneficiaries who are able-bodied and not caring for dependents and whose eligibility is running out.

Additional public policies are necessary to help meet the needs of low-wage workers in Mississippi. Expanding Medicaid will benefit employers because it will help workers stay healthy, which allows them to be more reliable employees. Implementing a state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and increasing the minimum wage are policies that put more money directly into the hands of low-wage workers, which will ultimately boost the economy when these workers spend their increased income.

Another suggestion is that Mississippi take the millions of dollars in unspent funds associated with their Child Development Block Grant and TANF (Temporary Aid for Needy Families) and spend it on child care assistance. This will allow more low-wage women to enter the paid labor force. Currently, states spend only slightly more than one-quarter of their combined federal and state TANF funds on basic assistance for families, 8% on work-related activities and support, and 16% on childcare (Schott, Pavetti, and Floyd 2015). These choices have weakened the safety net for poor families nationwide. Additionally, there has been significant erosion of TANF benefits in terms of purchasing power; due to inflation, the real value of TANF block grants has declined by 32.5% since the program was implemented in 1997 (Falk 2016; Stanley, Floyd, and Hill 2016). Cash assistance for 99% of recipients, the nation’s poorest families, has a purchasing power that is below 1996 levels (Stanley, Floyd, and Hill 2016). There have been no increases in federal TANF spending to adjust for inflation or increasing population size in two decades; federal TANF spending has remained at $16.5 billion for two decades (Vallas and Boteach 2015).