Sunday, March 1, 2015

Just Pay More Money

This week's Star Tribune brought a double-whammy of stories about what it's like to be poor in Minnesota. First a story about the Section 8 housing list opening up for new enrollment. Then today, Lori Sturdevant's commentary on how much Minnesota pays in MFIP ("welfare") payments.

I've always thought that Minnesota's social safety net is better than in most states, but these two stories show that's not true -- or if ours is better, than everywhere else is a version of hell on earth.

Sturdevant told me that our MFIP payments have not increased since -- get this -- 1986! Twenty-nine years with no raise. The maximum is $532 a month; the average is $353 a month. It was meant to be 70 percent of the federal poverty level, but now it's only 32 percent.

This affects 70,000 Minnesota children. I'm not sure why I had no idea about this before reading the story. I didn't need to know, since it doesn't affect me directly.

What can you do with $353 a month? In 1986 you could pay for all or at least most of an apartment -- and you might even have had some money left over for diapers or bus fare. These days it comes nowhere near the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Hennepin County -- $1,373. Or even a non-average cheaper one.

Well, you might think, "those people" have subsidized housing, right? That's where the Section 8 story comes in.

The average amount of time a Minnesota family receives MFIP is three years. You can't come close to getting Section 8 housing in three years. There's a waiting list that is years long, and you can't even get onto the list until there's a special open-enrollment period, which is happening now in a couple of Twin Cities counties. This is the first chance in the metro area in the past six years.

But get this -- the counties that are opening their list will get 70,000 applications for 2,000 spots on the list, which are then assigned by lottery. They haven't even cleared out their previous list yet. 400 people are still on the one they made in 2007.

And even if you win the lottery and get the Section 8 voucher, good luck trying to spend it. The number of landlords accepting them has decreased, and more stringent rules have been applied (which I've written about before). The average amount paid with a voucher is $670… which is just about half of that average one-bedroom rent.

Sturdevant points us to the larger picture:

Even as the Great Recession retreated in Minnesota, homelessness among families with young children increased. When last measured in 2012, the number of homeless families in Minnesota was more than four times greater than it had been 21 years earlier, Wilder Research reports.

Other likely results: Low student achievement. Poor physical and mental health. Increased risk of incarceration. Hopelessness continuing into the next generation. All of those are problems that the Minnesota Family Investment Program was created to ease. All worsened as MFIP atrophied.

A note to the stouthearted Minnesotans striving to narrow this state’s educational achievement gap: Have you looked at MFIP lately?
And she asks:
Unless MFIP offers more cash assistance with fewer strings attached, poor families won’t enroll. They’ll muddle along, and in so doing deny their kids the health care, child care and other noncash benefits MFIP brings. Their kids will be more vulnerable to poverty’s risks.
MinnPost ran a much-commented-upon story a few days ago about the "achievement gap" between white students and students of color in our schools. The writer, a school "reform" advocate, blathered on about how it's all liberals' fault. Many commenters wanted to know what the solution was.

Diane Ravitch has already given the list of solutions. Lessening poverty is a major part of ending the achievement gap, and these unconscionably low MFIP payments are part of it -- causing parents extreme stress, making kids move constantly or be homeless, not to mention being food insecure. The list goes on.

The solutions are available but no one wants to pay for them, or acknowledge that returning to the income and wealth distribution of 50 years ago would solve a lot of these problems.

Increasing Minnesota's MFIP payments would be a tiny first step.

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