Changes in wellfare laws challenge some Minnesotans

by Libby George

Darlene McKissick is in a precarious situation, as she has been since she gave birth to twins at age 17 and first entered the welfare system.

“I just don’t make enough right now to let go,” said McKissick, who now is a 38-year-old single parent of six children.

In January, McKissick will reach the 60-month time limit imposed by the 1996 welfare reform law, and unless she – and nearly 2,000 similar cases statewide – can get an extension she will be forced off welfare.

But she faces even bigger problems. Changes in the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families law, up for reauthorization in 2003, could mean big trouble for McKissick, but changes to the state’s welfare program – the Minnesota Family Investment Program – could also force her to support her four dependent children without state assistance.

“The thing we’re hoping for most in reauthorization is stability. Stability in funds and stability in rules,” said Chuck Johnson, director of the Families with Children division in the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

The version of the bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and supported by President George W. Bush would increase the number of required work hours per week from 30 to 40 and gives states less flexibility.

Waiver reauthorization

issue number one for Minnesota: waivers to the federal law, which expired in October 2001, can only be reauthorized through Congressional action.

“We really need that waiver, or we’ll be in trouble,” said Carol Miller, program manager with Children, Family and Adult Services in Hennepin County.

The waivers, which exist in 13 other states, provide welfare recipients in Minnesota with the flexibility to apply activities such as mental health assistance, education, job training and longer job searches to their federally required work hours.

McKissick currently works 32 hours each week and was able to obtain her GED through the provisions of the waiver. If the waiver is not renewed she will be unable to go to technical school, which she said is crucial to her future employment.

“As it stands right now, my position by 2006 will have to have an associate’s degree,” McKissick said.

Policy experts in Minnesota say these changes could also kill the state’s successful welfare reform.

“The model that our state ultimately used was extremely successful, and it was a nationally touted model,” said Minh Ta, public policy analyst for Children’s Defense Fund, a nonpartisan lobbying organization. “The Bush program would effectively dismantle all the reforms Minnesota has made.”

Johnson said roughly 75 percent of Minnesota families are moved off the system in three years.

Sam Haswell, press secretary for Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., said it is unclear when the Senate will act on welfare reform reauthorization, but the process will most likely pass a one-year extension and take the entire bill up in the summer.

As for a waiver reauthorization, Haswell said, “We’re pushing hard for it, but there’s no way to know right now.”

In November, interim Sen. Dean Barkley, I-Minn., made a verbal agreement with White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson to include Minnesota’s waiver in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families reauthorization in exchange for his vote on Homeland Security but according to policy experts the issue is still up in the air.

State obstacles

despite uncertainties at the federal level, decisions in Minnesota could also bring major changes.

“The state can change pretty much anything they want at any time Ö and they do,” Johnson said.

“The welfare caseload is already going up,” Ta said, citing the Minnesota Department of Finance November 2002 report, which predicted a 12 percent increase in Minnesota Family Investment Program caseloads for fiscal year 2004-05.

“When you look historically at state budget shortfalls, needy families are the first on the chopping block,” Ta said.

Johnson said the situation will be exacerbated by programs set to sunset in 2003, such as Local Intervention Grants for Self Sufficiency, which help hard-to-employ people – those with mental and physical disabilities – find jobs and the Supported Work Program, which provides job training for welfare recipients.

According to Lifetrack Resources, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families-funded program, which oversees counseling for McKissick, 40 percent of welfare recipients have never had a job, making this training essential.

Terminating these programs would force McKissick to see a counselor handling as many as 100 cases, and would make personalized help for her and her learning disabled 15-year-old son impossible.

Deficit problems

state legislators say it is hard to know what programs will be possible until they know what federal money will be available.

“It’s just impossible to know Ö without knowing where the feds are going to come down,” said state House Health and Human Services Finance committee Chairwoman Lynda Boudreau, R-Faribault.

Sixty percent of Minnesota’s welfare funding comes from national Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grants, and the other 40 percent comes from state-appropriated Minnesota Family Investment Program grants.

“The outlook I saw said that we’ll be exhausting our (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) reserves,” said state House Health and Human Services Policy committee Chairman Fran Bradley, R-Rochester. “That’s going to make us take a look at programs that may have been nice to do when we had a lot of money around but need to be reviewed in a shortfall.”

Ta said this sort of logic is flawed.

“That’s why you have (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) programs like this, for when the economy goes soft and people need help,” Ta said.

However, state Senate Health, Human Services and Corrections Budget Division committee Vice-Chairwoman Linda Higgins, D-Minneapolis, said she does not think massive cuts are inevitable.

McKissick said what the state decides could make the difference between success and failure for her and for her children, whose education could also be affected.

“(Going off welfare) would mess up Ö a lot. (The kids) would try to take on some responsibilities. They would be too busy trying to help mom to focus on school,” McKissick said.