Here’s a convenient coincidence, thought I: A Republican legislators’ news conference promising “a major policy proposal that will help enhance workforce participation and lift Minnesotans out of poverty” on the very day that a 10-year lookback at the Commission to End Poverty in Minnesota by 2020 is released.
I’ve noticed — and I bet you have, too — that poverty has not disappeared in Minnesota. It hasn’t even faded. New ideas for moving poverty into oblivion would be welcome.
It wasn’t until I got to the Capitol briefing room last Monday that I learned what Republicans had in mind. They propose to add a work requirement to the eligibility rules for Medical Assistance — aka Medicaid — the federal/state health insurance program for low-income Minnesotans.
That’s a newly permitted option for Medicaid, but making work a requirement for public assistance is not new. As DFL Gov. Mark Dayton (who remembers Richard Nixon well) said, “This is Workfare. … It’s the same old playbook, same shopworn ideas.”
What state Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said about the GOP proposal brought to mind that 10-year-old antipoverty report. “If they actually understood the lives that poor people live, they wouldn’t do this,” he said.
Lourey was one of the 18 legislators — nine senators, nine House members; 10 DFLers, eight Republicans — who between 2006 and 2009 made an extraordinary effort to better understand the lives of poor Minnesotans. (Of the 18, eight are still in office today.) They conducted 10 listening tours and four large public hearings, and employed state and national researchers to determine which policy options were most likely to improve the lot of the poor.
They wrapped up their work at the dawn of the Great Recession, knowing that the goal embedded in the commission’s name was becoming more distant by the day. “Ending poverty is our goal, not merely continuing to manage it,” said a section titled “Overcoming Pessimism.” They claimed it could be done, and offered a boatload of recommendations for doing so.
Some became law eventually. For example, the $9.50 minimum wage the commission sought was enacted in 2014 and indexed to inflation; it’s now at $9.65 an hour for large employers. The Working Family Tax Credit and a tax credit for child care now reach more people.
But plenty of the recommendations are still on hold. Monthly cash grants under the Minnesota Family Investment Program are still stuck at the miserly level set in 1986. Child care subsidies for the working poor were slashed in 2003 and have never fully rebounded. Transit funding is still uncertain, and bus service areas and hours aren’t optimal for the working poor.
The 2009 commission predated the Affordable Care Act. Health care policy was beyond its scope. But the report included an aside that bears notice now: “We cannot say strongly enough: If we don’t address health care in a concerted and comprehensive way, we will fail to end poverty.”
Hours before the GOP Medical Assistance news conference Monday, the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition — a Protestant/Catholic/Jewish/Islamic advocacy network that spurred the commission’s creation in 2006 — issued a lack-of-progress report. In 2007, 482,000 Minnesotans had incomes below the federal poverty threshold, it said. Today, that number stands at more than 533,000. None of the benchmarks set in 2009 have been met, the lookback chided.
Yet the review found some bright spots. Among them: “The percentage of Minnesotans without health insurance dropped from 9 percent in 2009 to 6.4 percent in 2017 (up from 4.3 percent in 2015).” That’s largely the result of more Minnesotans becoming eligible for Medicaid, thanks to the Affordable Care Act in 2010 and Dayton’s order expanding Medical Assistance eligibility in 2011.
That improvement is at risk if Republicans succeed in adding a work requirement to Medicaid, Lourey said. He said he learned on the commission that poverty is a complex dilemma with multiple causes. Chronic mental and physical illnesses are often part of the story; so are homelessness, illiteracy, family disorder, a criminal record and unreliable transportation.
Denying a poor person Medical Assistance for not working “won’t find anyone a job,” Lourey said. “You’re only going to cost people their health care. That’s wrong.”
Determining whether Lourey’s analysis is correct ought to be at the heart of the Legislature’s debate on Medical Assistance work requirements in coming weeks. To be sure, other considerations abound. The rapid rise in state health care spending, the difficulty and cost of administering work rules, the resentment some Minnesotans feel about the “undeserving,” the strong work ethic of Minnesotans — all will be discussed.
But a Legislature that not so long ago empaneled 18 of its own to develop a blueprint for the defeat of poverty should care enough about that cause to judge this proposal primarily in its light. They should embrace Medicaid work rules only if evidence is strong that they will make lives better, not worse.
• • •
I was going to end this column there. But by another convenient coincidence, Jessica Webster of the Legal Aid Society e-mailed a fitting postscript.
In 2013, she wrote, Minnesota imposed a work requirement on single adult recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. All the affected people had incomes below $19,000 a year. The state allowed exemptions for people with a serious illness or disability, just as the GOP Medical Assistance plan proposes to do.
Within the first year, nearly 47,000 Minnesotans lost food stamps. Only 6,000 single adults without dependents remain on the program today. “Thousands more are hungry,” she said. “This wasn’t supposed to happen.”
The Legislature should take care it doesn’t happen again.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.