Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty announced in February that deep cuts in aid to local governments and funding for health and human services, along with a six-percent average cut in funding to other state agencies, is needed to balance this year’s state budget. The disproportionately painful impact of his proposed cuts on communities of color is just the latest development in a consistent pattern of racial bias in the Pawlenty administration’s choice of budget targets.
“Eighty percent of our clients are on medical assistance,” notes North Minneapolis Meals on Wheels (NMMOW) Executive Director Denise Harris, whose program has seen a 16 percent cut in funding. Her program regularly serves nearly 300 clients on weekdays – most are female and a third are persons age 60 or older. “The majority of our clients are African American, but almost 100 percent of our clients are at poverty level,” she adds.
“For many of our clients, this is the only full, balanced meal they get during the day. Every time they cut funding, that just squeezes us tighter and tighter,” explains Harris.
“Unless grants come in for us this year, we actually may have to consider shutting this program down next year. We won’t have the funding to keep it open – we just won’t.”
“Social services organizations are going to be crowded with new folk that never experienced a certain level of disparity…and [we are] not going to be able to provide…services to a whole lot of people who need them,” predicts Way To Grow Executive Director Carolyn Smallwood. Her early childhood program, in which over 80 percent of her clients are families of color, offers free services to qualified families. “Parents with limited means cannot afford child care or early education out of their pocket,” Smallwood points out.
Pawlenty’s cuts are “heartless and faceless, especially the healthcare cuts,” says Minneapolis NAACP President Booker Hodges.
The budget cuts “continue to operate in ways that continue [racial disparities]… They protect the status quo,” says Starstep Foundation President Alfred Babbington-Johnson.
Combined with the unallotment powers he used last year to slash health care and state aid to cities among other things, Pawlenty’s proposals have harmed Blacks, other persons of color, and low-income families the most, says the Minneapolis-based Organizing Apprenticeship Project (OAP) in a recent analysis of the governor’s budget cuts, including his initial decision to eliminate on April 1 the General Assistance Medical Care (GAMC) program. Almost 40 percent of over 70,000 Minnesotans served by GAMC are Blacks and Native Americans.
According to the OAP, 69 percent of clinic visits covered by GAMC at Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) in 2009 were by people of color, compared to just 30 percent for White patients. “I know a lot of people who receive GAMC,” says Libby Osborne of Minneapolis.
“It affects me and a lot of people in my family. Without that, I don’t know if they have the security of health care.”
Harris says at least 80 percent of her Meals on Wheels clients qualify because of medical assistance.
After months of lobbying from hospitals, Catholic bishops and advocates for the poor, Pawlenty and DFL legislators did reach a deal last week to continue health insurance coverage for the state’s poorest residents. However, coverage will still be reduced, and the compromise does not alter the governor’s overall inclination to promote the interests of upper-income Whites at the expense of communities of color.
For example, the governor also proposed a 27-percent cut in the state renters’ credit program. Under that proposal, approximately 274,000 renters will face a reduction, and 18,200 renters actually will lose their credit, the OAP estimates. This would disproportionately affect elderly renters, low income renters and the renters of color who make up 20 percent of all state renters.
The OAP’s analysis also included $300 million in state aid to local governments that Pawlenty either unalloted or cut. “We found that the counties with the highest [number of] people of color, with the highest unemployment, with the highest poverty, are the ones being hit the most by unallotment,” says OAP Lead Policy Analyst Jermaine Toney.
Hennepin County is one example, where 25 percent of its 1.1 million population are people of color. It is among eight Minnesota counties where populations of color are above the statewide average (13.9 percent), and among 32 counties with poverty rates above the state’s overall poverty rate.
“Racial equity should be a core element of budget making and policy making,” believes Toney, who says budget cuts to health care, renters, counties and cities are “not a right way to turn around an economy or move us toward economic prosperity or recovery.”
Couldn’t the governor’s proposed budget cuts be considered racist in their effects when combined with his longstanding and unbending refusal to raise taxes on the richest of Minnesotans and his plan for business and corporation tax cuts that would disproportionately benefit Whites? The MSR contacted Gov. Pawlenty’s office for comment, but no response was received by press time. However, local organization heads, educators, legislators and citizens did respond to our question.
“I don’t agree with that,” admits Minneapolis Urban League President Scott Gray. “But I would say is that there is no evidence that we see right now that these tax cuts for corporations and others will create jobs. So I would say that if this is going to continue to be part of an incentive in next year’s budget, we want to see a good portion of minority folk to be able to get jobs from these tax breaks for these corporations.”
“I don’t necessarily agree that [the budget cuts] fall just on the backs of Blacks and people of color,” adds Smallwood. “[But] I think the issue should be that it falls on the backs of all people that do not have the means, and it does not matter what color or race you are.”
Hodges says, “I say it is more affecting people who are poor as opposed to along racial lines. But obviously in our state, we have more people of color in poverty, particularly Black people; those cuts are going to affect communities of color differently.”
People are struggling with the governor’s “balanced approach” to erasing the current $1.2 billion state deficit, claims Shawn Lewis of Eden Prairie. “He seems to maintain the pattern of wanting to balance the budget on the backs of poor people, low-income people, and people of color. He has been very consistent about that.”
Libby Osborne adds, “A lot of [Pawlenty’s] decisions that he made throughout his tenure have been questionable and have affected Black people and poor people more adversely.”
Pawlenty looks out only for the rich, believes Jan Rainey of Minneapolis: “I just think it’s an arrogance on his part, but I understand politics and the support that he needs are from those higher-ups and corporation CEOs. He never has been for anybody but those people. I’m embarrassed to say that I live in Minnesota and he is my governor.”
“Unfortunately we have a governor who is not as sensitive to all of the folk of Minnesota,” says Minnesota State Representative Bobby Champion. “Of course, he’s doing a great job for the wealthy and those who are rich.”
Pawlenty is too focused on running for president and “he’s not being inconspicuous about it,” says longtime professor and historian Mahmoud El-Kati. He adds, “I never expected much from this governor in being fair-minded.”
Dr. Monica Hurtado of Hennepin County Medical Center’s East Lake Clinic agrees that “In the way that he [Pawlenty] is balancing the budget, it will be worse [for people of color].”
The budget cuts “are a little darker” for many residents of color, especially in health care, says Dennis Presley, lead organizer for a youth program of the Aurora St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation in St. Paul. “They are struggling to get by.”
NMMOV’s Harris says, “People are feeling like they are not being heard.” Melvin Washington, a retired nurse who lives in North Minneapolis, says, “The people who do not have are the ones who are receiving the short end of the stick. There has to be an equitable solution that doesn’t pit people against people, one race against another.”
“I think the governor doesn’t see minority folk as his highest priority. He never has been much supportive of the least of these,” concludes Institute on Race and Poverty Executive Director Myron Orfield. “You are getting tax cuts for businesses at the same time you are giving devastating cuts in health care and support services for the poorest of the poor.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.