I’ll stipulate from the get-go that I have no quarrel with the raises Gov. Mark Dayton attempted to give state agency heads earlier this year — and may still, come July 1. They were both reasonable in comparison with other metro-area public-sector salaries and overdue after a 12-year salary freeze.

But as that dozen-year pay lock was cited by Dayton defenders in recent weeks, I kept thinking: What about the Minnesotans who depend on state government checks that haven’t increased since 1986? Where’s their raise?

That date is not a typo. Minnesota has not boosted the cash grants it provides to families enrolled in the state/federal Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) — in other words, “on welfare” — for a shamefully long 29 years. The maximum cash grant to a needy family of three, typically a single mother and two children, was and still is $532 per month. The average grant: a measly $353 per month.

In 1986, those sums might have covered the rent in a modest apartment and allowed a little left over for bus fare and the clothes, toiletries and diapers that food stamps won’t cover. Today, particularly in the metro area, those amounts won’t rent half an apartment. According to realtor.com, the average one-bedroom unit in Hennepin County rents for $1,373.

The 1986 sums were intended to give Minnesota’s neediest child-rearing families incomes at 70 percent of the poverty level set by the federal government. That’s far from generous, but it allowed families to function during their time on welfare, which averages less than three years in Minnesota. Those sums today are worth only 32 percent of the federal poverty line. That’s deep poverty. In fact, since the feds define deep poverty as 50 percent of poverty-line income, it’s deeper than deep.

Last year, nearly 70,000 Minnesota children and 29,000 adults were “helped” to lives of deeper-than-deep poverty by the taxpayers of Minnesota.

“We have made the welfare program into a deep financial hole that we systemically place families into,” lamented Jim Koppel, the new assistant commissioner for children and family welfare at the state Department of Human Services. “The hole is so deep that these families are unable to plan for their futures because they are unable to think beyond dinner that night. It paralyzes them.”

One result: Even as the Great Recession retreated in Minnesota, homelessness among families with young children increased. When last measured in 2012, the number of homeless families in Minnesota was more than four times greater than it had been 21 years earlier, Wilder Research reports.

Other likely results: Low student achievement. Poor physical and mental health. Increased risk of incarceration. Hopelessness continuing into the next generation. All of those are problems that the Minnesota Family Investment Program was created to ease. All worsened as MFIP atrophied.

A note to the stouthearted Minnesotans striving to narrow this state’s educational achievement gap: Have you looked at MFIP lately?

For too long, MFIP’s legislative stewards did not. Beginning in 2002, they had the distraction of recurring fiscal crises. But that isn’t the whole story. They’re politicians. They’re attuned to the fact that helping the poor is unpopular. For the sake of claiming they were discouraging dependency on the dole, politicians were willing to risk deepening dysfunction in the lives of poor kids.

Even in empathetic Minnesota, what passed for “reform” a decade or two ago were rules and restrictions, such as periodic drug tests and a “family cap” that denied cash grant increases to moms who became pregnant while on MFIP. Finally in 2013, someone noticed that the family cap policy had not reduced MFIP pregnancies. It just made MFIP families poorer. The cap was repealed effective Jan. 1, 2015.

One other 2013 change sends more cash to the many MFIP families who receive no other government-funded housing assistance. It’s $110 per month, and the checks won’t start arriving until this July. (A related Feb. 24 news item: 60,000 to 70,000 applications are expected for 2,000 newly available Section 8 vouchers in the Twin Cities, the first new vouchers since 2007. Help will arrive for the lucky 2,000 in two to three years, Uncle Sam willing.)

That’s welcome, but it’s not enough. A state task force recommended last month that cash grants be raised $80 per month this year and allowed to climb with inflation thereafter. It proposed paying for that increase with federal funds that now go to Minnesota’s income tax Working Family Credit and a visiting nurse program.

But the task force added a big caveat: It only favors the cash grant increase if the tax credit and visiting nurse program are kept whole, with state dollars fully replacing repurposed federal ones. Those programs are too important to low-income families to disappear, the task force said.

The estimated cost of that shift to the state budget in 2016-17: $68 million.

This is a fine place to note that Friday’s forecast projected $1.9 billion in as-yet-unallocated funds in state coffers through June 2017.

For years, MFIP recipients and advocates for the poor have waved placards and shouted chants in Capitol corridors, trying to attract notice. This year, they say, they’re finally getting some. Bills to boost the cash grant have both DFL and Republican sponsors, noted Kenza Hadj-Moussa of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless.

“There’s definitely been a shift in attitude here since 2012,” the last year of deep budget crisis in St. Paul. The Great Recession reminded Minnesotans that poverty can befall people through no fault of their own. “There’s more understanding of the complexities of poverty now, and more compassion,” Hadj-Moussa said. “There’s awareness of the good that comes when a rising tide is allowed to lift all boats.”

We’ll see. The budget-setting starts in earnest this month at the Capitol.

Here’s hoping that last month’s legislative prelude hasn’t set the pattern for issues with a partisan edge. The hyper-politicization of state agency head salaries demonstrated how eager legislators are to allow politics to trump the merits of a state policy question.

Dayton is right: Unless Minnesota starts paying its agency heads more, future governors are going to have a hard time recruiting talent.

There’s an MFIP parallel, the task force warned. Unless MFIP offers more cash assistance with fewer strings attached, poor families won’t enroll. They’ll muddle along, and in so doing deny their kids the health care, child care and other noncash benefits MFIP brings. Their kids will be more vulnerable to poverty’s risks.

There’s plenty of reason to worry about what’s in store for the 70,000 children whose families were enrolled in MFIP last year. But policymakers ought to be at least as concerned about the fates of the estimated 112,000 more who are also living in poverty, and whose parents have decided that MFIP is so stingy and restrictive that isn’t worth the bother to enroll.

 

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.