Education can improve “Welfare to Work”


Minnesota’s economy demands an increasingly educated workforce. By 2018, it’s estimated that 70 percent of Minnesota jobs will require some post-secondary education. In fact, Minnesota companies require a better-educated workforce than in any other state, and they report trouble with finding qualified applicants.

Workers, too, struggle in this job market. Those without a high-school or college degree are largely limited to shrinking job prospects and stagnant or declining wages. And we can’t ignore that the Twin Cities has one of the largest racial gaps in the nation when it comes to employment for people of color.

Given these realities, we should prioritize education for low-income workers. One way to do that is to update the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP, or “welfare-to-work”) to ensure that the poorest families have better routes to self-sufficiency. Right now, just 63 percent of parents enrolled in MFIP have a high-school diploma or GED. Only 1.4 percent have a college degree. If low-income parents can’t improve their educational prospects, they face long odds for staying employed at a sustainable income level.

There are a few ways in which current MFIP guidelines limit a family’s educational prospects, and ultimately its self-sufficiency:

  • Parents are allowed to pursue education, but those working towards English proficiency or a GED/diploma are usually limited to spending half of their required “work activity hours” on schooling. That means that they must spend the other half of those hours (10-15 per week) either working or looking for work. Asking a low-income parent (quite likely a single parent) to pursue school, employment, and parenting all at once slows their educational progress. The longer it takes for them to finish their education, the longer they’re stuck with low-wage jobs or no job at all.
  • MFIP participants pursuing higher education are limited to two-year programs. Any four-year program doesn’t count as work activity, meaning that parents wanting to earn a bachelor’s degree would still have to complete 20-30 hours of work or job-searching each week on top of their schoolwork and parenting. Parents would also be denied childcare for the time that they spend in class since that class isn’t an approved work activity.
  • MFIP participants often don’t realize that they have the option to go to school—it’s not usually encouraged or advertised. States are judged on how well their assistance programs help people find work. States do not get credit towards their “work participation rate” for people who take the time to get a degree (nor do they get credit for families whose earnings improve enough to leave MFIP altogether, but that’s a different story).
  • Once an MFIP participant finishes their GED or postsecondary program, they are given six weeks to find a full-time job relevant to their education and career goals. After that, they are required to accept any reasonable full-time job offer, whether or not it puts their education to use and offers a path towards increased earnings. In today’s economy, six weeks is a tight timeline for any grad.

The Workforce Education Bill, which the Prosperity for All coalition hopes to pass in this legislative session, would address these barriers to education. The bill would:

  • Give all MFIP participants the opportunity to pursue any level of education full-time. Parents would still be required to meet the 20-30 hour weekly “work activity” quota, but schoolwork could constitute any needed percentage of those hours. Many parents would likely still choose to work at least a few hours per week and won’t be penalized for doing so.
  • Extend approved postsecondary studies to include four-year degree programs.
  • Mandate that all MFIP participants are informed of their right to education.
  • Give recent graduates twelve weeks to find a full-time job that meets their employment goals before requiring them to accept any full-time job.

These provisions are common-sense updates that reflect Minnesota’s changing economy. By giving our poorest families a hand up to better education and better jobs, we’ll create a more competitive, self-sufficient workforce for this generation and those to come.