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MFIP Reform Done Right

March 05, 2012 By Colleen O’Connor Toberman, Hindsight Community Fellow

The Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) is the state's welfare-to-work program for families in poverty. A family of three receives $532/month in cash assistance (plus food support) to cover housing, utilities, transportation, child care, and household expenses. Assistance amounts have not increased since 1986, while inflation has reduced that money's buying power by 50 percent.

MFIP and other assistance programs need reform. As more Minnesotans fall victim to a terrible economy, we must modernize how we care for vulnerable families and promote employment. However, some of the Legislature’s recent “welfare reform” proposals are not true reform but dangerous cuts in masquerade.

What would positive change look like? What standards should we uphold for MFIP and other safety-net programs? Let us consider a few criteria:

Are we protecting children?

Fifteen percent of Minnesota children are living in poverty. Sixty-six percent of MFIP recipients are children. Tough-on-crime requirements for applicants punish children for their parents' past mistakes. For instance, one proposal would ban people from receiving MFIP for up to ten years after a drug conviction. No toddler should suffer homelessness, hunger, and instability because of a mistake his parent made years before he was born.

Are we incentivizing employment for those able to work?

MFIP requires recipients to search for work and improve their job skills. This is good; employment lowers the odds that families will need long-term assistance. However we need a sensible “step-down” plan that gradually reduces assistance and allows families to build savings. A family of three currently loses all MFIP support when their income reaches $21,953 (115 percent of poverty, or $10.55/hour at full time). Workers at that income level live paycheck-to-paycheck and often go without workplace benefits. This leaves them very vulnerable to crises that send them back to assistance. Current proposals would lower income eligibility to $19,030 (100 percent of poverty, or $9.17/hour). This is a backwards step; we should instead be asking ourselves how we can continue supporting families as they grow their incomes and savings to a sustainable level.

Are we supporting victims of a poor economy?

Economic downturns have the deepest impact on those at the bottom. Low-wage earners are often not eligible for unemployment benefits. (This is especially true for women, who comprise 70 percent of MFIP applicants but only one-third of Unemployment Insurance recipients.) The Legislature's proposals to lower assistance amounts, shorten the amount of time a family can use MFIP, and punish the most vulnerable recipients who find it challenging to comply with every paperwork requirement don't take into account that we are suffering the worst economy since the Depression. Our assistance programs should provide a safety net for those in crisis right now while giving them the skills to succeed in our future economy.

Are programs easy to access?

Families eligible for assistance should receive it. Requirements should be clear, paperwork should be simple, and one entry point should give access to multiple programs. Applicants should not have to pay an up-front cost for background checks, drug screenings, or other hurdles that presume guilt without any data to support those assumptions. Asking someone who has no money to pay up before she can receive any money is offensive and ludicrous. Our systems should encourage all who qualify to take advantage of the support services, health care, employment training, and income assistance that will help end their poverty.

Are we moving Minnesota forward?

Our Legislature’s current dangerous proposals will cut assistance programs and harm our most vulnerable neighbors. This is not the “reform” Minnesotans want. This is not the “reform” our children deserve. The good news is that better policy suggestions do exist. The Legislature has a bipartisan Commission to End Poverty in Minnesota by 2020 . Their careful research and long-range view can guide us—all of us—forward into a more prosperous future if we just choose to listen.

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