Sign up for the Morning Update email newsletter
Anyone who questions the value of investigative journalism needs to take a look at Anna Wolfe.
Wolfe, a Washington state native, won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting a couple of weeks ago. Last week she appeared at the Milwaukee Press Club's awards banquet as this year's recipient of the Sacred Cat award, joining the likes of Walter Cronkite, Marty Baron and Cokie Roberts.
She works for the nonprofit news organization Mississippi Today. She chose to move to the poorest state in the nation to cover poverty.
Then she blew up state government.
She wanted to know why only 4% of the state’s poor received cash assistance in 2020 (nationally, that number is 21%). And why, since 1996, the number of families who got assistance dropped from 48,000 to about 1,600. But the federal money kept rolling in, leaving state officials a windfall to spend on whatever they wanted.
And, her reporting shows, what they wanted was to enrich themselves and their friends.
“State and nonprofit officials used tens of millions in federal funds that were supposed to assist very poor families — or at least offer opportunities to families to help them avoid falling into poverty — to purchase property, lavish their friends and family, or to prop up programs that had little to do with alleviating poverty,” Wolfe wrote in a story last fall.
She uncovered brazen corruption at the highest levels of state government, resulting in charges against state health officials, and charges likely coming against former Gov. Phil Bryant, who was entangled in various schemes to use $77 million in unspent welfare funds.
A trove of text messages from a tipster sealed the story. But Wolfe had already unearthed the scandal through hard work and at least 140 open records requests, many of which were incompletely filled or ignored.
“The state was approving just 1.4% of applicants for welfare,” Wolfe told Harvard Kennedy School's Journalist's Resource. “I knew that we were still getting federal money every year to provide cash welfare and other supports and services to families in poverty. And I knew that it wasn’t going to direct cash assistance to families, and I wanted to know where the state was spending the rest of the money. So, I started putting in public records requests at that time.”
Even without the text messages, Wolfe had uncovered the sprawling corruption in the state by combing through databases and documents and finding sources. Yet the story probably wouldn’t have resulted in intense national coverage, or her Pulitzer Prize, if it weren’t for one man: Brett Favre.
The longtime Packers quarterback and Pro-Football-Hall-of-Famer sought to divert at least $8 million in state money to various schemes, including $5 million to build a new volleyball stadium at the University of Southern Mississippi, where his daughter was on the vollyball team.
And that got the attention of the national media.
It's a shame that without the involvement of Favre, Wolfe would likely have never been catapulted into the national spotlight, even though her hard work and preserverance uncovered not only a vast web of corruption, but the contempt of officials toward the state's poorest citizens, which was the real story.
And that contempt is not just shared by other state officials, it's a badge of honor for conservative politicians seeking to shore up their base. It's on display among House Republicans who are willing to risk economic catastrophe to impose work requirements on welfare recipients and cut funding for social safety net programs. And it's on display among Wisconsin Republican lawmakers who want to do the same.
Speaking at the Milwaukee Press Club last week, Wolfe offered some advice to Badger State reporters: Look at the state's welfare funds.
The state has $214 million in unspent Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds. That money, she said, could provide a year of child care for 39,000 kids, provide transportation for 60,000 people or pay 1.5 million past-due electric bills.
More than half a million people in Wisconsin live in poverty. Just one-in-five of those families get monthly aid, she noted. So why isn't the money being spent to help the poor?
In a state where the Republican-led Legislature continually undermines efforts to help the needy and seeks relentlessly to reward rich donors, who knows what reporters might find?