Guest column: Welfare change largely successful

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 20, 2002

July marks a momentous month for welfare reform in Minnesota. This month, the first large numbers of Minnesota families reach the 60-month lifetime limit on cash assistance.

The time limit, a critical component of the 1996 federal welfare reform law, reinforces the temporary nature of cash assistance. For most families, the new welfare system has worked as it was intended &045; as a temporary bridge to becoming more self-sufficient. Of the more than 50,000 families that were receiving assistance in July 1997, when the time limit began in Minnesota, only about 2 percent are now reaching the deadline.

Under the Minnesota Family Investment Program, or MFIP, the state’s welfare reform effort, the majority of families are working and moving out of poverty. More than three-fourths of the families on assistance in July 1998 were off assistance or working three years later. Families that left MFIP and went to work were earning more than $9 an hour; family income was equal to 175 percent of the poverty level (about $25,000 a year for a family of three) &045; a success rate higher than those of other states.

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Many share credit for MFIP’s success &045; government and community leaders and organizations, volunteers, frontline welfare workers and job counselors, and, most importantly, parents who are working hard to build better lives for their children.

Not all families, however, have succeeded. We estimate that statewide between 900 to 1,000 families will reach the time limit this month. More than half of these families, with parents who are unable to work or who are working a certain number of hours, will continue receiving assistance under extensions approved by the 2001 Legislature. Many face significant barriers &045; health problems, parents and children with disabilities, and mental health issues.

And this month, some families will lose cash assistance. County workers have made extensive efforts to work with these families, helping them link to other resources and stressing that many will be eligible for other supports, including health care, food stamps, child support, job services and, if they are working, child care.

What will happen to the families that lose cash assistance? Many appear to be receiving child support, living in subsidized housing or getting support from families and friends. Others may not be as fortunate, and struggle to make ends meet.

Minnesota’s first five years of welfare reform have been marked by some great successes for many families. Our efforts, however, have also shown us that government agencies, nonprofit organizations and community groups must continue working together to better help families with multiple challenges to become more self-sufficient before they reach the time limit.

Jeanette Taylor Jones is assistant commissioner economic and community support strategies for the Minnesota Department of Human Services.