BILL MINOR: Mississippi’s jobs creation innovation makes top headlines

By Bill Minor

JACKSON – Mississippi made page 1 news in The New York Times the other day, and it wasn’t about some racial episode or the state’s obesity. No, it complimented the state on its innovative plan to use federal stimulus money intended for welfare to subsidize new jobs for six months with expectancy the job will be permanent.
Called STEPS, the plan has a goal of creating 3,500 jobs under the welfare stimulus money that expires next March. A bill in Congress proposing to extend it for another year reportedly has the backing of the state’s congressional delegation. Because of the drumbeat by Republicans and the Tea Party movement against President Obama’s stimulus program, existence of the program was unknown to the average Mississippian until last week.
The job subsidy idea was hatched back in September by Stan McMorris of the state Department of Employment Security working with the Department of Human Services. Gov. Haley Barbour, who publicly has been a critic of the Obama stimulus plan, has given STEPS his approval. Since the plan involved reallocation of $43 million designated for the TANF welfare program administered by Human Services, it took several months to get federal clearance.
It couldn’t have come at a better time for Mississippi, which weighed in with a 10.6 percent unemployment rate in December, one of the nation’s highest.
Barbara Hicks, director of the WIN jobs centers at the state employment service said that STEPS will provide a variety of full-time jobs. The plan is to subsidize jobs at 100 percent the first two months, 75 percent the third month, dropping to 25 percent in the sixth month. Businesses will be committed to keep the job on a permanent basis. The job hire must not replace anyone previously employed by small business (preference is given to employers with no more than 25 workers, but some larger companies are eligible.)
Significantly, 3,500 new jobs created with stimulus dollars would offset almost an identical number of jobs Mississippi has apparently lost from the indefinite postponement of the planned Toyota plant near Tupelo. Both the economic recession and Toyota’s celebrated recall of eight million vehicles for faulty mechanisms have thrown a dark cloud over the company ever building cars in Northeast Mississippi.
Strict limits are put on the subsidized jobs. To start with, the jobs are only open to persons having a child under 18 in a family with income not over 250 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.
After one month in operation, the STEPS plan has placed 70 workers in jobs ranging from welders to secretaries to cooks, Ms. Hicks said. In all, she added, 141 employers in the private sector have been qualified to put STEPS hires to work.
As the first anniversary of the Obama $787 billion stimulus recovery program (formally the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act) was marked last week, STEPS was among several areas in Mississippi where jobs have been created.
Particularly, the Department of Transportation has benefited from the Obama recovery act according to Butch Brown, executive director of MDOT. Brown said 500 jobs in MDOT projects were created by recovery funds from the $355 million allotted to his agency.
The ARRA money came to MDOT “at a time…our contracts were running out of money because we were out of dollars,” Brown declared.
Some 4,500 jobs in the state’s public school system that would have been lost from budget cuts were saved last year from specific education grants allotted to Mississippi in the recovery act, Department of Education officials had reported.
As a child of the Great Depression, this writer well remembers how Franklin Roosevelt’s Work Progress Administration (WPA) program provided the safety net for our family in the 1930s. FDR’s New Deal programs back then – just as Barack Obama’s today – were branded as “socialism.” Tea Partiers, try telling that to millions of America’s elderly today who depend on Social Security to keep financial independence.

Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at P.O. Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at edinman@earthlink.net.