Pawlenty’s proposed welfare changes draw mixed response

Libby George

Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proposal for reform of the Minnesota Family Investment Program left case workers, advocacy groups and policy experts reeling, and at the State Capitol on Monday morning the Affirmative Options Coalition responded.

“He’s leading us down the road toward Wisconsin, and that’s bad public policy,” said Karen Kingsley, director of the Affirmative Options Coalition, a statewide group of organizations that lobbies for welfare issues.

Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Kevin Goodno – who worked with Pawlenty to formulate the proposal – stood behind the welfare policy.

“We’re not adopting the Wisconsin model,” Goodno said. “We took what we thought was the best element of the Wisconsin plan, which is the focus on work.”

The Affirmative Options Coalition said parts of Pawlenty’s proposal – including his diversion plan requiring those receiving an education must also work and his proposal for 100 percent sanctions – reflect a poor understanding of the welfare program.

“The governor Ö has an outdated stereotype of welfare that does not exist in this state anymore,” said Matt Gladue, public policy manager in the St. Paul Archdiocese’s department of social justice. “People do want to work and are working. But some people have underlying barriers that keep them from doing so.”

Diversion plan

One of the key and most controversial components of Pawlenty’s proposal is the diversion plan. Under the proposal – modeled after a pilot program in Dakota County – new applicants would have to wait for months while they form a work plan before receiving assistance. Currently, new applicants begin receiving benefits immediately.

Jan Mueller, a program director with Lifetrack Resources – an organization that provides job counseling to family welfare recipients – said she saw many potential problems with this aspect of the proposal.

“The sample size of that program was too small,” Mueller said, adding that it studied approximately 300 people. “(The subjects) were work-ready, and Ö I don’t think they would look like the bulk of the (program recipients) in Hennepin County.”

Mueller’s main concern is that immigrants, people with poor English skills and no job skills will not be able to move into the work field that quickly.

“(Pawlenty) thinks the only answer is work and a paycheck,” Mueller said. “We need to be more broad-minded and focus on transition.”

Goodno said those who oppose the diversion plan simply do not understand the focus.

“All we’re saying is let us put the emphasis of this program up front,” he said. “The earlier you get people on a work plan the better.”

Goodno added that the diversion plan will help caseworkers identify obstacles to employment – such as learning disabilities or substance addiction – before recipients reach the lifetime five-year limit and are cut off completely from benefits.

Working for education

Gladue and the others said they were also concerned with the work hours requirement, which they argue will keep the people who need it most – those with children – from getting skills training, which would make them self-sufficient.

Currently, recipients getting an education or job training can count those hours toward their work-hour requirement – federally mandated at 30 to 40 hours per week. Pawlenty’s proposal would require them to work at least 25 hours per week.

“Families in crisis need more than a job to stabilize them,” Gladue said. “We are not talking about people getting four-year college degrees for free. We are talking about getting them the skills and training they need to get a job.”

Particularly concerned with this portion of the legislation is Darlene McKissick, a single parent with six children. McKissick currently works 32 hours per week as a teaching assistant at an elementary school, but under the new legislation she will need at least an associate’s degree by 2006 to keep her job.

Goodno did not see this kind of concern as relevant.

“The role of the government is Ö to provide a safety net when people need help,” he said. “If they want to get a job or traditional training, they can do that while they are working just like everyone else.”

Tougher sanctions

Sanctions, the penalties family welfare program recipients face for breaking the rules or procedures of their programs, are also slated to change under Pawlenty’s proposal.

Now the recipients’ benefits dip to 30 percent when they are sanctioned. The Pawlenty proposal would require 100 percent sanctions – providing no benefits at all – for those who break the rules.

According to the Hennepin County public affairs Web site, in 2000, 300 of the 10,500 recipient families – less than 3 percent – were facing long-term sanctions.

“We should not be making public policy on a very small number of people,” said Reggie Wagner, an attorney for the Minnesota Legal Services Coalition. “One of the concerns we have about the governor going to 100 percent sanctions is it casts a wide net. Studies that have been done nationally have shown that it is the families who are most in need of help who are being cut off.”

Pawlenty’s administration has said that the tougher sanctions will make sure program recipients will stay on task.

“We have high expectations for people receiving state assistance,” Pawlenty said at a Jan. 30 press conference.

Pawlenty’s plan has some support in the Legislature.

Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, ranking minority member of the Senate Health and Family Security Committee, said she supports the proposal and she thinks the public does as well, but the DFL-controlled Senate might be an obstacle.

“I think it makes sense to ask people to work,” Fischbach said, “(But) you are looking at a DFL-controlled Senate, and that’s a stumbling block. But the general public is ready for things like this, and it’s their tax dollars.”

Libby George covers politics and

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