State underinvestment hits Rochester’s vulnerable families


The Governor’s Human Services budget includes general fund cuts of more than $88 million for the rest of FY2008 and $435 million the following year. Those cuts come on top of years of underinvestment in out state. With the effects of that underinvestment rapidly starting to trickle down to communities throughout Minnesota, the harmful consequences are becoming clearer.

Brad Lohrbach has identified a clear effect of underinvestment in Minnesota families. Lohrbach is the Executive Director of Family Service Rochester, which opens up vital services to families in Rochester and Olmsted County. He says the Rochester community is in much of a transition phase.

“Today our agency provides more than 27 programs to meet the wide-spread needs of families in Rochester. Our community is becoming more and more diverse,” Lohrbach said. “With less money to go around, there are a number of groups within the population that won’t have access to services that are vital to healthy families.”

Family Service Rochester was founded in 1965 as a nonprofit organization with a staff of three and the mission to support the quality of life for individuals and families in the Rochester community. In 1990, Sunrise Youth and Family Counseling joined with Family Counseling and Home Services to form Family Service Rochester.

The agency has played a major role in working with families whom the community had not provided services. Major service expansions have been in the areas of child maltreatment, child welfare, domestic violence and providing needed services to ethnically diverse populations in the Rochester community. Today the agency provides more than 27 programs to meet ever-changing community needs. The current staff of more than 75 provide a wide range of human services that educate, strengthen, support, protect and empower individuals and families in the their community.

Making sense of investments for children and families in Minnesota is usually no easy task. Money invested for children and families is spread across different levels of government (e.g., federal, state, county, city, town, school district), across many agencies within each level, and across public and private sectors. It involves dozens of funding sources, paying for hundreds of different programs. And while this system does a good job of meeting the needs of some children and their families, it misses others badly.

State policy makers are facing tough decisions on how they will enact the kinds of policies and investments necessary to produce better results for children and families. Most basic among these tasks is an analysis of how resources are currently being used. How much is invested, by whom, and for what? No business would make investment decisions without such a picture. No body of government attempting to do a better job of helping children to develop and thrive should do less.

“It is essentially the erosion of services that is taking its toll on families in Rochester,” said Lohrbach. “Things like education, services to the elderly, health care, and public safety are slowly being dismantled from state funds. This presents a problem to families that have certain needs that will not be met because there is a lack of funding.”

Not only do such human service budget cuts harm those Minnesotans least able to weather the current economic down turn, but it would also have a negative impact on the economy. When the state invests in services, that money pays wages and buys goods and services in our communities. Reducing those investments means taking money out of the economy. By taking progressive taxes off the table and targeting human services for spending cuts, we are asking our most vulnerable Minnesotans – the low-income, the elderly and those with disabilities – to shoulder most of the burden.

“The level of commitment that our state has in keeping Minnesota families safe is often reflected in the budget, said Lohrbach. “Such programs that aid children in preparing for school or help our senior citizens stay in their homes safely are at risk. These programs are important to the people that need them.”

With spending limits in Minnesota changing over time, so are the ever increasing spending priorities. In total, we are spending less money than in past years on Minnesota children and families. And a large percentage of the spending is for remediating problems after they occur, not investing in the healthy development of children and families necessary to prevent or reduce these problems. This means, that we are almost certainly paying more for remediation than we would if we approached the well being of children and families as a matter of investment for the state. There is a growing consensus, if not yet fully conclusive body of evidence, that substantive investment in child development, family support, and prevention is not only good social policy but good fiscal policy as well.

Sally Kane is a New Prague-based writer.