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Mississippi to increase lowest welfare payments in the US

FILE - Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves delivers his State of the State speech on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in Jackson, Miss. Congress just sweetened the incentives for states to extend Medicaid insurance coverage to more low-income adults, but the dozen Republican-controlled states that have spent years resisting expanding the programs have no plans to change course now. Gov. Reeves says he's not going for it, noting that his stance was a major issue in his 2019 campaign. His GOP primary opponents supported a plan to expand, with the state's share being paid for by hospitals and a fee of up to $20 a month for people who signed up. He opposed it, even as the Mississippi Hospital Association said it could bring up to 19,000 jobs to the state. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, file)
FILE - Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves delivers his State of the State speech on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in Jackson, Miss. Congress just sweetened the incentives for states to extend Medicaid insurance coverage to more low-income adults, but the dozen Republican-controlled states that have spent years resisting expanding the programs have no plans to change course now. Gov. Reeves says he's not going for it, noting that his stance was a major issue in his 2019 campaign. His GOP primary opponents supported a plan to expand, with the state's share being paid for by hospitals and a fee of up to $20 a month for people who signed up. He opposed it, even as the Mississippi Hospital Association said it could bring up to 19,000 jobs to the state. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, file) (Copyright 2021. The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

JACKSON, Miss. – Mississippi will increase the lowest monthly welfare payments in the nation under a bill signed into law Wednesday by the state's Republican governor.

Mississippi has long been one of the poorest states in the U.S., and the measure made law by Gov. Tate Reeves marks the first time in 21 years that the state will expand payments through the program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

The payments in Mississippi have been $146 for a family of two, $170 for a family of three and $194 for a family of four.

The new law authorizes an increase of $90 a month to each category, based on a recommendation from the head of the Mississippi Department of Human Services. State senators said the increase would cost about $2.8 million a year and be paid with federal funding.

Senate Bill 2759 became law as soon as Reeves signed it. The Department of Human Services has told legislators that recipients could start seeing the higher payments in June or July.

Even with the increase, the Mississippi welfare payments will still be only a fraction of the federal poverty level, according to the liberal-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

Nearly 20% of Mississippi's 3 million residents live in poverty, according to the Census Bureau. In 2019, the median household income in the U.S. was about $68,700; it was about $45,000 in Mississippi.

Brandon Jones, a Democratic former Mississippi House member and current policy director for the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund in Mississippi, called the increase long overdue. He thanked the Republican-controlled Legislature and Reeves for approving it.

Jones said in a statement that states with the highest proportion of low-income Black residents have historically had the lowest cash assistance benefits.

“It is not surprising that Mississippi TANF benefits have been the lowest in the country,” Jones said. “This $90 increase gets Mississippi off the bottom and is desperately needed by struggling families throughout the state."

He added that the increase would help Mississippians afford “basic necessities such as healthier meals, rent, and gas for their car."

During a debate in February, Republican Sen. Joey Fillingane described the $90-a-month increase as a “modest but reasonable amount that Mississippi could afford.”

He said about 3,000 families currently qualify for the assistance.

“These are the poorest of the poor in our state,” Fillingane said.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.