No raise for state’s poorest families — again

Published 7:38 am Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

The 32,000 poorest families with children in this state won’t get a raise in monthly income this year — again. They’ll have to live on the $348 average monthly award that was set by the 1986 Legislature — again.

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That’s the sorry story after a major push at the 2017 Legislature to boost the monthly allowances provided by the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP), Minnesota’s version of welfare. Of all that the 2017 Legislature considered but left undone, this decision to stick with MFIP’s status quo is particularly disappointing.

This looked likely to be the year for a thaw in MFIP’s 31-year freeze. Key Republicans in the Legislature’s majority joined DFL champions for MFIP like Minneapolis Sen. Jeff Hayden in agreeing to a modest increase — $13 per month — in MFIP’s monthly grant.

That’s a very small raise. Advocates had sought a $100-per-month boost; this newspaper recommended a $75 increase. But understood as the first in a series of biennial cost-of-living adjustments, a $13 boost would have been a breakthrough. It would have been a reflection of bipartisan awareness that MFIP is de facto unemployment insurance for people who lose low-wage jobs that don’t provide such benefits. Like unemployment insurance for higher-wage jobs, MFIP’s grants should grow with the economy.

The $13-per-month increase was included in the first version of the human services funding bill to arrive at Gov. Mark Dayton’s desk. The bill was vetoed for other reasons. When the final version emerged, the MFIP increase was gone.

That’s a bipartisan failure. But we can’t help thinking that if an MFIP increase had been a higher priority for the DFL governor, it would have been part of the final budget. Dayton has supported an MFIP boost in previous years. But this year it was not included in his budget proposal, which emphasized increases in tax credits for lower-income working families. At his urging, both the working family credit and the child/dependent care tax credits saw increases this session, funded in part by the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

Those increases are laudable. But the highest priority for TANF dollars ought to be help for people raising children in the poorest circumstances. In Minnesota, that’s the MFIP population. Just 13 percent of Minnesota’s TANF allotment goes to MFIP’s monthly grants, according to Senta Leff, co-chair of the Prosperity for All advocacy coalition.

MFIP families receive other help from taxpayers, including food stamps, health care assistance and, in some cases, housing subsidies. But there are some things children need that only cash can buy — and those things cost a lot more than they did in 1986.

MFIP enrollment last year was the lowest in the program’s history. That could be a reflection of a good economy. But Leff says it’s also a reflection of a program so laden with rules and paperwork that needy families avoid it unless they are truly desperate, and often homeless. That means some of the families policymakers aim to reach are going without the child-rearing stability that is MFIP’s goal, she said.

Low enrollment numbers should occasion a fresh look at MFIP during this year’s lawmaking interim. Leff said she tells legislators, “Homelessness is not a character flaw. It’s a math problem.” MFIP’s math needs to be brought into line with its good intentions.