No excuse can any longer justify Minnesota’s 30-year failure to increase monthly cash assistance to this state’s poorest families with children. No budget squeeze, partisan paralysis or policy distraction can explain why monthly grants under the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) have been allowed to fall to just 32 percent of the federal poverty line since they were last raised in 1986.
That shameful parsimony must be corrected by the 2016 Legislature. Continued neglect of the basic needs of some 28,000 vulnerable families — including 64,000 children — who depend on MFIP to survive would betray Minnesota values.
A report released last week by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, an advocacy group, notes that if MFIP’s monthly cash grants — stuck at $532 for a family of three — had been adjusted annually for inflation since they were set 30 years ago, they would be more than twice that sum today. Allowing inflation to take its toll for so long has undermined MFIP’s ability to meet its intended policy goals. It does not cover life’s necessities for children while their parents meet MFIP’s strict requirements for work, job search and/or job training. Too often, recurring homelessness and diminished childhood development are the result.
Poor families have been ill-served by legislators’ decision to divert all but 16 percent of Minnesota’s federal TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) block grant to purposes other than MFIP. A sizable portion of Minnesota’s TANF money goes to a tax credit for low-income families with children, the Working Family Tax Credit. That credit is worthwhile, but it reaches well beyond the neediest families served by MFIP. For them, a tax credit is no substitute for more disposable monthly income.
Last year, a number of legislators in both parties sponsored a bill to finance the tax credit from the state’s general fund and use freed-up TANF dollars to help pay for a $100-per-month increase in MFIP grants. Though the idea did not receive a hearing in the GOP-controlled House, it found its way into the Senate tax bill and seemed politically feasible — until the session’s tax bill stalled in conference committee.
This year, MFIP ought not be tied to other legislation. With bipartisan support and no evident opposition, an MFIP increase can make a strong claim for a share of the state’s surplus. All that’s needed is a louder message from Minnesotans that no child in this state should be raised in extreme poverty.
A $100-per-month boost in grant payments would cost the state about $35 million per year. While not a large sum, the Legal Aid report said, “as little as $1,200 per year to a family utilizing MFIP can positively affect childhood brain development, early learning, educational attainment, emotional and behavioral health, and positive family dynamics.” With all of that to gain, legislators can scarcely say no and still cast themselves as champions of family values.