Eyes on children’ for welfare reform

by Chris Vetter

Welfare will be a major issue in the state Legislature, and some state officials want to make sure that children are a top priority in upcoming debates about how welfare money will be spent.
Because of the recent federal welfare reform law, state legislators will have a bigger role than ever before in divvying up federal welfare dollars during their 1997 sessions. Several officials who will be involved in state welfare policy discussions spoke at a campus forum about how to apply reforms to Minnesota so that children and noncitizens are not adversely affected.
The forum was held at the St. Paul campus Monday during the 12th annual Conference on Policy Analysis.
“This is the most significant change in social policy in 60 years,” said Deborah Huskins, the assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services. “It ends the entitlement of (Aid to Families With Dependent Children).”
About 14 million people receive cash assistance from the dependent children program, making it the largest portion of federal welfare spending.
The bill limits families and individuals receiving welfare to five years of assistance, and gives states the option of eliminating the dependent children program by providing them with block grants to be spent at their own discretion.
“Block grants are not a huge cut in funding for Minnesota,” Huskins said. “The state will receive $268 million, slightly more than we are spending right now.”
The question for legislators is how the grants will be spent.
The Legislature should pass reform that will get citizens back to work, but protect children from cuts, Huskins said.
“Child care is an essential (part) of welfare reform,” she said. “We understand that for people to work, they need a place for their children. We must keep our eyes on children as we move forward.”
Legal noncitizens will also be hurt by the bill, said Dan Engstrom, Hennepin County’s director of economic assistance. He said 10,000 noncitizens in Minnesota will lose federal funding and will be without assistance unless the Legislature approves funds for them.
James Koppel, the executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund, said noncitizens will still need assistance after the federal government cuts off funds during spring and early summer next year.
“We are going to cut off all those people,” he said, “and those people don’t just disappear. And that is why this is a short-sighted federal policy.”
But Koppel said welfare reform was needed to force able-bodied citizens to work. “For too long we made it too easy for welfare to be the place to be,” he said. “The focus has to be on the work side and not on the welfare side.”