Panel discusses human impact of welfare reform

by Seth Woehrle

As Minnesota edges closer to the five-year deadline when most welfare recipients will lose their government assistance, a group of experts gathered last week to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the new face of welfare.

The forum, titled “Welfare Reform as We Know It,” was part of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs’ Policy Forum.

Thursday, the first day of the forum, focused on the state welfare system and what to do with the estimated 5,000 families that could be cut off, starting this summer, from
assistance. The state is allowed to extend service to 20 percent of those people.

Michael O’Keefe, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health and Human Services, started the forum by noting the successes of the state’s reform and pointing out areas of concern – such as how to decide the minimum level of chemical dependency or mental illness that would exempt a person from the five-year limit.

“It puts the government in a
terrible position of writing regulations that are excruciatingly detailed, specific and utterly ill-based in terms of research,” O’Keefe said. “It’s the kind of government I hate, but I’ve been handed that to implement.”

Other speakers included the director of the Hennepin County Economic Assistance Department, the state program manager at Central Minnesota Jobs & Training Services, a children and families reporter from the Star Tribune and the president of the Urban Coalition, an organization representing low-income families.

At the end of the forum, some attendees said they felt some of their concerns were not addressed.

Rep. Gregory Gray, DFL-Minneapolis, and Paul Gaston, Vadnais Heights City Council member, both said they were surprised by the absence of blacks on the panel, given that they comprise the majority of struggling minority families.

Charlotte Kerelko, a social worker since 1975, said she was troubled by the vague regulations enforcing the extensions, especially who could qualify and for how long. She said some of her clients were in danger of being cut.

“It’s terrible,” Kerelko said. “For those of us who know them personally and know their stories it’s an awful thing.”

The second day focused on national welfare reform and featured two experts usually found on opposing sides of the issue.

Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brookings Institution’s welfare reform initiative, helped write welfare reform bills as an aide to the House Ways and Means Committee. He represented the conservative position that the states’ welfare programs could handle the downturn.

Wendell Primus, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, spoke for the liberal concern about the new system’s ability to handle a recession without more resources.


Seth Woehrle welcomes comments at [email protected]