It’s Time To Invest

Neglect of Minnesota welfare is neglect of families and children

Illustrator: Ruby Guthrie

Illustrator: Ruby Guthrie

The Minnesota Family Investment Program, or MFIP, provides cash assistance to families living in poverty in the state of Minnesota. The program provides vital aid in helping Minnesota families, especially single mothers, meet their basic needs. However, the maximum cash amounts provided to families for MFIP have not increased since 1986, that is, in over 30 years. Inflation has greatly decreased the real effects of these services. The maximum cash grant for a family of three, then and now, is $532. In 1986, this amount met 70 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of three. Now, it meets only 30 percent, meaning a single, out of work mother relying on MFIP would find herself and her children deep within what the federal government defines as deep poverty. Seventy-eight thousand Minnesota children currently live in these conditions.

The MFIP is Minnesota’s poverty relief program operating under the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families grant from the welfare reform act of the Clinton administration in 1994. Under this system, states receive a block grant of federal money to spend as they determine on poverty relief programs, and states are required to provide matching funds up to 75 percent of the grant. Minnesota receives $263.4 million in TANF money each year, and provided $353 million in state matching funds in 2012. This amount of federal TANF funding has not changed since 1996, and so has decreased with inflation as well. This lack of an increase in federal funding partially explains the failure to increase MFIP cash assistance.

The maximum cash amounts provided to families for MFIP have not increased since 1986, that is, in over 30 years.

However, the lack of an increase in cash assistance also reflects a shift in the proportion of TANF and state funds spent on the program toward other areas of the TANF mandate, such as the Working Families Tax Credit and the MFIP consolidated fund, which provides money for services like job training and job searching, as well as covering some administrative costs. In 1998, Minnesota spent 71 percent of its total poor relief spending on direct cash assistance. In 2012 Minnesota spent only 46 percent of its total spending on direct cash assistance and childcare, while spending the rest on the consolidated fund and the Working Families Tax Credit. Minnesota, in the last two decades, has transitioned away from spending its TANF money largely on programs that provide vital lifelines to families in deep poverty and toward using this money for programs that seek to incentivize, or harass, the poor into finding employment, as though they do not realize that in our present system they must work to live.

Though programs such as job training are important, they surely aren’t more important than keeping children out of extreme poverty. Additionally, while the Working Families Tax Credit has proven to be effective in combatting poverty, such programs serve only to combat poverty that is not as severe, as they only combat the poverty of those who are not unemployed and therefore make a taxable income. Tax credits like this are also more likely to benefit married couples, who have a lower unemployment rate than single parents, and white Minnesotans, whose unemployment rate is less than one quarter that of black Minnesotans. The more limited effects of tax credits tend to be a reason they pass, as Republicans prefer them to direct welfare assistance. For people who face structural obstacles to work, like childcare and discrimination, direct cash assistance is vitally important.

If their parent does manage to find a job, the children may find themselves living just above the poverty line with an absent parent forced to work long shifts at strange hours for minimum wage in order provide for them.

This focus on incentivizing work rather than caring for the unfortunate in our society actually makes these programs relatively unsuccessful in providing stable homes for children in poverty, along with their failure to provide these children with the resources necessary for success. In typical circumstances, children affected by these programs, especially the children of single parents, find themselves in a situation wherein they do not have enough food or a safe place to live. If their parent does manage to find a job, the children may find themselves living just above the poverty line with an absent parent forced to work long shifts at strange hours for minimum wage in order provide for them. In either case, these circumstances lead to decreases in academic success and problems with both mental and physical health.

Providing just an additional $100 to MFIP—though about $700 is needed to restore it to its historic high—would provide a great deal of assistance to Minnesota’s poorest families, allowing them to afford necessities like gasoline, heating, electricity, and rent. Though this measure received the recommendation of the Senate TANF Committee in 2014, it’s yet to pass. And all of Minnesota continues to suffer for it.