Who’s watching the kids?

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Who’s watching the kids? Not the Republicans in the legislature. Instead, they are proposing shortening the time of eligibility for the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) assistance, cuts in the income level for eligibility, and punitive restrictions and requirements. Cynthia Boyd details some of the issues of “Welfare Reform 2.0,”including one telling example:

Amanda Koonjbharry, an employment counselor with Employment Action Center, spoke for the working poor. She talked about a client called Kelly, a young mom who works 30 hours a week making $8.50 an hour and receives $300 in monthly food and cash benefits through the state as well as child-care benefits while going to school.

Kelly’s income is 105 percent of poverty level, Koonjbharry said, but under the proposed law, the mother would be faced with giving up her job, losing her benefits or dropping out of school.

It’s not like poor children are going away. The number of kids living in poverty has increased since 2000, nationally and in Minnesota. Some 15.2 percent of all Minnesota kids were poor in 2010 — that’s an increase of 62 percent in ten years.

Cutting MFIP hurts kids. Seven out of ten people receiving MFIP are children — about 71,000 children in 2010, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. Almost half of these children are under the age of five. The other three out of ten people? That would be their parents. Some are struggling parents like Kelly, trying to work their way out of poverty and build a better life for their children. Others are parents struggling against the burdens of mental illness or chemical dependency, or grandparents stepping up to raise their grandchildren. 

How does it make sense to cut off benefits to people who are just barely getting by? Even if a family starts earning slightly more than the official poverty line, that is not enough money to pay rent and buy food. How does it make sense to slash the lifetime eligibility period for assistance from 60 months to 36 months? Or to require that any family member’s drug use — at any time in their life — makes the family ineligible for MFIP? 

 

Beyond the Twin Cities

The stereotype is that poverty is an urban issue. It’s true that child poverty is higher than the state average in Hennepin County (15.7 percent) and Ramsey County (25.5 percent), but poverty is not just an urban phenomenon. 

Some rural counties have far higher child poverty rates. Among them: Mahnomen (35 percent), Beltrami (29.9 percent), Pine (25.7 percent), Clearwater (25.5 percent), and Cass (24 percent). (Click here to see all of the county listings on the CDF website.)

Some politicians talk about saving money. Taking food from poor children is not the way to save money, and cutting MFIP won’t even save very much. The CDF report on Minnesota’s Invisible Children notes:

The average monthly cash payment in December 2010 was $303 for MFIP child-only cases, and $357 for MFIP families. (Less than one percent of the total state general fund budget is spent on MFIP and General Assistance–the state’s cash assistance program for adults without children.) The basic MFIP cash assistance amount
has not been increased or adjusted for inflation since 1986.

That’s right: less than one percent of the total state general fund budget is spent on MFIP and General Assistance combined. 

Poverty matters, and it matters most to kids. Several recent reports show that poverty is the largest determinant in the achievement gap. As reported in the New York Times in early February:

Now, in analyses of long-term data published in recent months, researchers are finding that while the achievement gap between white and black students has narrowed significantly over the past few decades, the gap between rich and poor students has grown substantially during the same period.

If we are serious about building a better state, we need to focus on reducing poverty, not reducing MFIP, and on supporting poor kids, not on punishing their parents.