The last time welfare recipients in Minnesota saw an increase in their monthly cash payments, Minnesota Twins slugger Kirby Puckett was elected to his first Major League Baseball All Star Game, gas cost less than $1 a gallon and Rudy Perpich was just elected governor.
Thirty-three years later, thousands of poor families on Minnesota’s family welfare program will see a long-awaited increase of about $100 a month, bringing the maximum cash subsidy for a typical family of three to $632 a month. Minnesota has not increased its cash assistance for poor families since 1986, even as the cost of living has more than doubled. Only two other states, Arizona and Oklahoma, have gone as long without raising welfare payments.
“It is long overdue,” said Lisa Bayley, acting assistant commissioner of Children and Family Services at the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS), which oversees the program.
The change takes effect Saturday and culminates years of hard-fought campaigning by a loose coalition of advocates for the poor, local social service agencies and nonprofits that serve children and the homeless. More than 29,000 low-income families, including about 54,000 children, will benefit from the increase in the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) benefit, according to official estimates from the DHS. The monthly payment is still not nearly enough to cover the rising cost of rent, which now averages about $1,200 a month for a two-bedroom apartment in the Twin Cities.
And the $100-a-month increase is offset somewhat by a decrease in food stamp benefits, which under federal rules must be cut when there is an increase in a person’s income.
A family of three on cash assistance will see their food stamp benefits decline from $457 to $412 a month, according to the DHS.
“It’s better than nothing, but it’s not nearly enough,” said Tori Boyer, a mother of three children who has received MFIP assistance since she suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Janesha Freeman-Anderson, a single mother with a learning disability, said she has been receiving cash assistance episodically since her son was born five years ago. The $100 in extra cash, she said, will help her afford more trips to the laundromat near her apartment in north Minneapolis, which means her son will have cleaner clothes to wear to school and will feel more confident, she said. It also means fewer trips to a local Salvation Army food shelf, which she visits several times a year when her cash runs out.
“It’s a big deal,” she said of the MFIP increase. “Maybe we’ll have a little left over to buy my son some new clothes. Maybe he’ll feel a little better about himself.”
There is no simple explanation for why Minnesota’s cash benefit has been frozen in place for more than three decades, though advocacy groups for the poor say they have been kept on the defensive by shifting public attitudes toward welfare recipients and a barrage of proposals to cut or even dismantle the program. Almost every year, groups like the Welfare Rights Committee in Minneapolis would bring poor families to the State Capitol to push for increases in the MFIP program, but much of their time and energy was spent on simply preserving the program.
In 1996, then-President Bill Clinton and a Republican-controlled Congress approved reforms to “end welfare as we know it.” They included much stricter limits on who can receive aid and for how long and much greater leeway for state officials to use federal funds for welfare. In Minnesota, that historic change was followed by a steady stream of bills aiming to cut benefits or limit access through new work requirements or drug testing.
The result has been a steady erosion of purchasing power for low-income families receiving the benefit.
When policymakers set the cash payment in 1986 at $532 for a family of three, the federal minimum wage was $3.35 an hour and monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Minnesota was just $480. Had the MFIP program simply kept pace with inflation, the subsidy would have more than doubled to $1,240 by now, based on consumer price data.
Even after the $100 increase, Minnesota’s monthly grant is still less generous than welfare payments in about a dozen other states, including Wisconsin.
“We’ve had to battle a lot of negative stereotypes,” said Angel Smith-El of St. Paul, a member of the Welfare Rights Committee who credits MFIP with helping her stay off the streets as a single mother in the 1990s. “I’ve heard it so many times, when I was in the Capitol halls, that [MFIP] parents are just sitting around and doing nothing and eating bonbons. Fake stuff.”
There has long been a misperception, say advocates, that MFIP recipients are chronically unemployed and depend on the program for long periods.
A recent analysis by the state workforce agency found that 72% were employed during the three months they applied for benefits, though typically at wages that kept them below the federal poverty level. And most MFIP recipients stay in the program for short periods: More than 40% of families who enroll in MFIP exit the program in less than a year. Over MFIP’s history, only 7% of adult recipients have maxed out the five-year limit on benefits, according to the DHS.
“For most people, [MFIP] is about having access to a support system during a critical time of need,” said Bayley of the DHS. “It’s not a long-term benefit.”
Boyer said the state program kept her family afloat during a prolonged bout of homelessness last year, when she and her three children were sleeping on the floor of a friend’s apartment.
The monthly payments were her only source of income. Without MFIP, Boyer said she would have been unable to afford food and transit fare to pick up her three children — ages 7, 10 and 12 — from school. Over a period of 10 months, Boyer was able to save just enough money to make a deposit on a small, two-bedroom apartment in south Minneapolis, where she moved just after Christmas. Now her rent consumes all her cash assistance payments, she said.
“Without those funds [from MFIP], I would have cracked,” said Boyer, reflecting on her time of homelessness. “When you’re out on the streets, you’ve still got to feed your kids, and people are not going to just give you things.”