Sometimes you’re working at a low-paying job and you just don’t make enough to cover basic necessities. Or you’ve been laid off and don’t have savings. Or you’ve had a medical emergency and can’t work. Or you don’t have child care. Or you’ve never learned how to handle money. Or you have no family support, you’ve been evicted or you are a late teen just emerging from a dysfunctional family. You can eat a lot of beans and a lot of oatmeal and borrow cars and sleep on other people’s sofas, but sometimes it just gets too difficult. So you see if you can get state assistance. You wait in line for maybe a day and then talk to someone who points you in the direction of programs that will help you. Nobody aspires to be on welfare.
MFIP ( Minnesota Family Investment Program) is a state program through which people struggling to make ends meet can receive cash assistance. The money for MFIP comes from a federal fund called TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). This is what has replaced AFDC (Aid to Families and Dependent Children).
In Minnesota, 28% of TANF money goes to MFIP. MFIP grants are $503/month for a family of three, $437/month for a family of two (one adult and one child). One adult who can’t economically defend him/herself can receive $203 per month from another fund, General Assistance. These amounts have been the same since 1986. The cost of living has risen 113%. The longest you can receive MFIP is for five years.
The Welfare Rights Committee, composed of volunteer, multiracial, low-income women advocating for themselves and their communities, has been working tirelessly for three years to get legislation passed to double the welfare grants so that assistance can actually be that—a helping hand that offers hope for the future.
In February of 2015, Sen. Chris Eaton (D-Brooklyn Park) and Rep. Carolyn Laine (D-Columbia Heights) introduced bills to double the welfare grants: SF 432 and HF585. For example, a family of two would get $1,034 instead of $437. There was also a proposal, SF734, to add $100 to the monthly grants.
The bills to double the grants didn’t get into the omnibus Health and Human Services appropriations bill at all, but the proposal to increase monthly assistance $100 per month did make it all the way to the end of the discussions. At the end, though, it was discarded. However, housing assistance, worth $110 per month, for people not already receiving section 8, was passed. Another improvement in the laws was that someone receiving MFIP will no longer have the amount of their grant reduced if they are also receiving child support.
The possibility of passing the bill to double the grants in the special session is pretty much nonexistent, according to Senator Eaton, because there’s education, environment and energy to take care of.
As a nurse working in community health for 20 years, Sen. Eaton has “seen the results of underfunding this program.” She said in an email, “I believe it is unconscionable that the grants haven’t been raised in so long.” She also wrote, “I have a solid commitment, that we will be a priority next session  if the state’s surplus continues to grow.”
At the legislative session’s end, on May 18, the state’s surplus was $1.9 billion.
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The welfare system should be a safety net for people in hardship situations. It’s in a society’s best interests to have a net. It helps everyone. It prevents many costly disasters down the road.
Thankfully there was a safety net when my friend Lynn needed it in the early ’60s. She was 3 years old when her dad left her mother and her two older sisters. In the beginning, her mother got AFDC (Aid to Families and Dependent Children). With only a high school education and at a time when women typically didn’t work outside the home, Lynn’s mother wasn’t prepared to go to work. Besides, who would take care of the kids? There were no daycares at that time. Both sets of grandparents lived nearby, and while they provided the support they could, they didn’t have the means to drop everything and take over. Luckily, Lynn and her sisters and mother lived in an apartment building where everyone kept an eye on everybody’s kids, so it was safe for the three girls, once they were all in school, to stay at home while Mom worked in a cafe down the street. When their mom remarried, her new husband took financial responsibility for the family. The way AFDC was able to tide them over and keep them from homelessness is the way assistance is supposed to work. During the time they were on AFDC it was a barebones existence. “We had the necessities and few luxuries,” Lynn says. But they survived.
If someone gets help when they need it, as Lynn and her family did, it’s more likely they won’t need help in the future. It’s like fixing the leaky roof when it starts leaking rather than waiting several years, by which time you have to rebuild the whole house. (This goes for health care, too, by the way.)
Another friend of mine, back in the mid-’80s, was married and had a child. When her little boy was 2 she recognized that she couldn’t allow her husband to abuse her or her child any longer. She picked up her son and moved to the Twin Cities. She already had a college degree and some work skills, but even so, her degree didn’t give her the kind of living that would have supported herself and her child. She enrolled in accounting classes and got a part-time job but she still couldn’t make ends meet. And she didn’t have a family support network here. If she hadn’t received the $437 per month assistance, off and on over a period of two or three years, she and her son would have lived in her car—or couch surfed. She said at that time on assistance you could afford to rent an apartment and even save a little. “Having something sooner rather than later” was extremely helpful. She has been fortunate. She is now on her feet, owns a house and has a good job. She wonders how, nowadays, on $437 per month, anyone could be expected to get out from under in five years, or even 10.