Jesson attacks GOP ‘Welfare Reform 2.0’ plan


Even the title is politically charged. As Welfare Reform 2.0 inches its way through the Legislature, it’s hard to imagine Gov. Mark Dayton signing legislation that puts up so many obstacles for low-income families seeking government help.

The DFL governor has not spoken publicly about the Republican plan – and his spokesperson says he doesn’t plan to, for now – but his commissioner for the Department of Human Services has now denounced it in a letter to state lawmakers.

Dayton may be waiting to see how far the legislation goes before jumping into another fight with GOP legislators, especially as no significant action has been taken yet in the Senate, but Commissioner Lucinda Jesson isn’t holding back.

Community Sketchbook focuses on the economic and social challenges facing communities, especially low-income communities and communities of color, and how people are trying to address them.

It is made possible by support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Minneapolis Foundation, and some Minneapolis Foundation donor advisors.

Community Sketchbook articles may be republished or distributed, in print or online, with credit to MinnPost and the foundations.

In her March 1 letter to key House Republican committee chairmen Rep. Jim Abeler of Anoka and Steve Gottwalt of St. Cloud and to Senate Health and Human Services Committee chairman David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, and 13 other legislators, Jesson decries “at least a dozen bills” adding new “regulatory burdens” for low-income families receiving economic assistance from the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) and /or General Assistance (GA).

Says Jesson: “While we applaud and fully support efforts to reduce fraud in these programs, we cannot support policies that create unique new regulatory burdens on low income families in economic assistance programs, ultimately undermining their work effort and putting more children in poverty.’’

Republicans counter that the legislation is “intended to tighten up” the assistance programs and that eliminating waste and fraud translates into more money for the poor.

“This is really about the integrity of dollars for people in need,’’ Gottwalt told me recently. “Minnesotans want to help the people truly in need.’’

But Jesson says the majority of families receiving assistance “do not fit a pattern of fraud, abuse and misuse.’’ Rather, she says, they are responsible adults trying to care for their families and “achieve self sufficiency.’’

Taking on GOP early in session

“The memo is pretty unprecedented in tone and timing,’’ says Jessica L. Webster, staff attorney for the Legal Services Advocacy Project, one of many advocates for the poor. “You don’t usually see leadership like this early in the [legislative] process.’’

Jesson, calling MFIP “the state’s primary resource for moving children out of poverty” by reconnecting parents to and supporting them in the work force, cites a 62 percent increase in the number of Minnesota children in poverty between 2000 and 2010, which figures out at an increase of 50,000 youngsters.

She says she fears the numbers of poor children will grow if the legislation is passed and have long lasting consequences since studies show children growing up in poverty face the greater likelihood of school failure, criminal activity, significant health problems and less success throughout life.

Currently a family of one unemployed adult with no other income and two children receives $532 in cash and $473 in food support monthly, she says.

“I understand that the bills seek to address perceived problems with parents [use of drugs, lack of effort to obtain employment], yet the harm of these policies falls disproportionately on children,’’ she writes.

Further, she says, such “burdens” “are not imposed equally on other people receiving state benefits such as unemployment insurance, state-funded tax credits or payments under state contracts.’’

Anti-fraud measures

Jesson points out that DHS is in the process of implementing “extensive” anti-fraud and new eligibility changes made to the assistance programs last summer with the 2012 to 2013 budget agreement, including measures to prevent purchase of alcohol and tobacco with a benefits card.

Jesson says: “Particularly in light of these new restrictions DHS opposes additional cuts in eligibility for low-income families, burdensome new application ‘fees’ requiring families to pay for drug tests and background checks; changes to lifetime limits for families in unstable work situations; severe sanctions; unconstitutional residency and substance abuse testing requirements; and unnecessary or duplicative use of background studies and residency verification data.’’

She says she created the Office of the Inspector General to prevent and investigate fraudulent activity in human services programs.

Further, she characterizes the majority of persons on these financial assistance programs as working at very low-income jobs or having serious health problems limiting their abilities to hold full-time jobs, or being new mothers or recently unemployed.

“These are children and families who, through their hard work, deserve a chance to climb the ladders out of poverty…’’