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Why Minnesota’s poorest kids will stay poor

Minnesota’s poorest children are at high risk of never overcoming the debilitating effects of poverty, despite a state program intended to better their lot, according to a new study by the Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota.

According to “Minnesota’s Invisible Children: Children in Families Receiving MFIP,’‘ about 70 percent of those receiving financial support through the Minnesota Family Investment Program Assistance are children, yet “MFIP is woefully inadequate in keeping kids out of poverty,” says Marcie Jefferys, the fund’s policy development director and author of the report.

“MFIP keeps children from destitution, but they remain poor and are often pushed deeper into poverty by current policies,” the report notes.

That should worry Minnesota lawmakers and business people looking ahead to the state’s future work force needs, she says, because:

“The environments in which children grow up affect all aspects of their development. Poverty, especially deep poverty, is often toxically stressful for children and can disrupt the architecture of their developing brains.” Of the 71,000 kids receiving MFIP last year, more than half were age 5 or younger, a time of rapid brain development, according to the study.

On the other hand, improving these families’ economic well being and increasing children’s access to services such as Early Head Start and quality child care are “important efforts Minnesota could make to reduce future public expenditures, increase the productivity of its future workforce and improve the lives of its youngest citizens,” the report says.

Early help
“We know who these kids are. We can name them. You get high bang for the buck, a high return on investment” by making sure these children get the help they need early on, Jefferys says.

She says the Children’s Defense Fund is issuing the report to lawmakers and state administrators with the hope some social service policies will be changed to help children.

Overall, about 15 percent (192,437) of the state’s children live at or below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Erin Sullivan Sutton, assistant commissioner of the state Department of Human Services, this week praised the report for throwing the spotlight on very poor children and “reaffirming something we already know:” that “as a state we are not doing as well by these children as we should be.”

Minnesota children in extreme poverty getting welfare assistance
Source: Minnesota Department of Human Services

“We should not be leaving children in extreme poverty,” Sutton says, confirming that Human Services personnel are reviewing current policies surrounding MFIP, which she describes as a “welfare to work” program. She says the report will “help with conversations” and assessments.

Living in so-called deep poverty, these children may experience not only food shortages but also homelessness, child neglect, unsafe neighborhoods, substandard housing and a parent or guardian with mental illness or chemical dependency.

The report cites telling figures: that almost half of parents or guardians in MFIP have received a mental health diagnosis within the prior three years, that 37 percent of the caretaker adults were diagnosed with a chemical dependency and that 18 percent of MFIP families were involved with the child protection system within the prior three years — almost five times the rate of the general population.  

Children growing up in such stressful environments, according to numerous studies, are at high risk of developmental delays and long-term health consequences. A child whose mother has depression — a common condition in this group — doesn’t respond to her baby as a healthy mother does, thus reducing a child’s opportunity for human interaction and learning, for instance.

Other early learning opportunities are lacking as well. Only one in eight of these children under age 6 was enrolled in Head Start or Early Head Start in 2009-2010.

Data collected by Jefferys seems to show a connection between deep poverty and higher numbers than the general population for children enrolled in special education (35 percent), children having potential developmental delays, mental health diagnoses and serious health concerns.

Family cap
Current policies, the report says, work against children.
That’s because, since 2003, the state has “frozen payment levels” to families on MFIP who have more children. Under the so-called “family cap,” financial payments to these families do not increase with the birth of another child.  

The family cap has not been shown to keep women from having babies, according to the report, only to push families deeper into poverty. (A family of one parent with two children receives a monthly MFIP payment of $532.)

Other financial sanctions such as non-compliance with requirements to document job searches reduce cash assistance by 10 percent or 30 percent, but don’t take into account family circumstances, such as families having children with disabilities or chronic health problems or adults struggling with depression, domestic violence or illiteracy, according to the report.

The current MFIP program is quite a bit different from Minnesota’s original, ground-breaking welfare reform program, says Deborah Huskins, who helped pilot the program during the time she was assistant commissioner at the state Department of Human Services from 1994 to 1999.

That program, Huskins says, was focused on making work pay and allowed people to earn some money while receiving some cash benefit, thus providing incentive to work. The original policy was to help people back on their feet and back into the work force “as quick as possible.”

“Rewards,” such as child care and employment services such as help writing resumes, were built into the program, but the program has been eroded by cuts, says Huskins, who now works in human services for Hennepin County.

The report makes a number of recommendations, including: review of polices for their impact on children and child development as well as adoption of employment policies such as paid sick leave, adequate wage leaves and tax policies to keep families out of poverty.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by William Pappas on 11/18/2011 - 06:23 am.

    I have an idea that republicans will like. Let’s freeze funding, not allow any increases with the birth of another child and then prevent any birth control assistance or counseling for these families. That should make them morally stronger. Since republicans know a lot about closing the achievment gap once the kids are in school, we don’t need to worry about early childhood education or other programs to help poor adults ready their children for learning. Make sense?

  2. Submitted by Douglas Shambo II on 11/18/2011 - 08:37 am.

    This report, and similar ones from around the country, expose the error in the right-wing theory that 1) poverty is the fault of the poor – all they need to do is “get up off their duffs and get a job” and 2) that there’s no ROI for these early childhood programs. The facts speak otherwise.

    There’s a very simple choice here: Give poor children a head start in life now, or build more prisons, workhouses, and homeless shelters later. Which is cheaper and, in the long run, better for society???

  3. Submitted by Jeff Michaels on 11/18/2011 - 09:13 am.

    This is the perspective from someone who has spent 30 years helping people change their life.

    We already have enough people and programs to aid anyone who really wants to increase their standard of living. You can triple the amount of money spent, as well as staff, and it will make no difference.

    After three decades of volunteer work, I have learned this is the most generous country in the world. There is plenty of help available already for anyone who really wants it. In fact, the more assistance people receive, the less likely they are to change.

    My volunteer effort comes down to this: I help people who want to help themselves.

    The standard liberal solution of spending more money to solve problems does not work.

    Anyone who has spent as much time in the trenches as I have would know this.

    The sad fact is the more money you spend on the poor, the more poor you are going to have. I was around when LBJ, the ultimate liberal, started the war on poverty. As an idealistic college student, I supported that effort. As a wise man, I no longer do.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/18/2011 - 10:07 am.

    If early childhood education works so well, why hasn’t the achievement gap been narrowed?

    There is no way to stop uncaring, uneducated, unemployed, drug addicted young men from getting uncaring, uneducated, unemployed, drug addicted young women pregnant.

    I admit that it really tic’s me off to hear leftists claim Republican’s don’t care about kids, or worse get some kind of pleasure out of the suffering so many grow up with. That describes a misanthropic sociopath, not a pragmatist. The claim is meant to tic people off, not come to a consensus.

    Capping the benefits we provide people in return for their uncaring, uneducated, unemployed, drug addicted behaviors obviously does not make life any easier for the kids they produce, but the 2 generations of their lineage that were groomed by LBJ’s “war on poverty” definitively proves that unbridled expansion of benefits doesn’t help them either.

    The only sure way to change this situation is to get the message that living a uncaring, uneducated, unemployed, drug addicted lifestyle is a bad idea, and that bringing a child into it is inhuman. The upcoming generation of kids growing up in poverty need to reject the lifestyles of their parents, not prepare to join in.

    Of course, that will entail making moral judgments, which Democrats are loath to do lest it impinge on the hedonistic appetites of many of their leftist core constituencies.

  5. Submitted by James Hamilton on 11/18/2011 - 11:37 am.


    It’s fascinating that you equate liberalism with a lack of wisdom. The two are not mutually exclusive, just as conservatism is not synonymous with wisdom.

    The roots of poverty are complex.

    Some argue that the poor are an inevitable consequence of a capitalist economic system that depends in part on the existence of an excess labor pool and large numbers of consumers. There’s some truth to that, IMO, especially in a technologically sophisticated world market, in which worker productivity continues to increase.

    Sometimes, proposed solutions fail because they were simply wrong. Sometimes, they fail because they were mishandled. Sometimes, they fail because they weren’t properly funded. Wisdom lies in knowing the difference.

    Too frequently, poverty is the only legacy a child receives from his or her parents.
    A person who grows up without a home is not likely to succeed. A person who grows up without adequate nutrition faces greater challenges than one who does not. A person born into a family in which education is prized and in which the parents have been sufficiently educated has a running start on those whose parents have not been educated and/or who do not value education.

    There are parents who are unable and/or unwilling to do what is necessary to provide their children with the tools needed to survive and thrive in our society. Too often, their children learn only that they can’t make it.

    Expecting either our schools or our social programs to eradicate poverty and its causes is magical thinking. Some are beyond our control (e.g., mental illness which does not respond to treatment, certain physical and/or mental disabilities). Other factors, particularly racial inequities and overt racism, will require more than government can do.

    My point? Change what can be changed, accept what cannot be changed, and be smart enough to know the difference. (With apologies to the authoer of the Serenity Prayer.)

    Disclosure: I know some of those quoted in this article and my spouse works at DHS, in MFIP. Obviously, my views do not necessarily reflect theirs.

  6. Submitted by Norm Champ on 11/18/2011 - 03:07 pm.

    Great. Wonderful.
    Thomas and Jeff’s opinions remind me of Congressman Kline questioning why we still fund Head Start. After all, we’ve had it for years (NEVER fully funded thank you); yet we still have poor youth entering schools unprepared. Obviously the program is a failure.

    Art Roleck’s study (data driven and done by the Fed Reserve – not by (horrors)a liberal), proving that Head Start’s ROI was 17:1, and we still do not fully fund the program would seem to show logic is not driving our policy. 17:1.

    Agreed it is up to the individual to act on the opportunities presented to them, but to blame the poor for being poor, isn’t american. Go sit in any County’s welfare waiting room for an afternnon, it isn’t easy, or fun to be poor with kids!

  7. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 11/18/2011 - 05:21 pm.

    Mr. Swift’s comments reflect his attitude toward the poor:

    “I smell the stink of your fetid breath in the welfare lines; in crime ridden public housing compounds, in the detox wards where the detritus of liberalism wretch the bile of leftist compassion onto the floor; and in the horror chambers where Dr. Frankenstein rips your doomed children from the wombs of your defiled women.”


  8. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/18/2011 - 05:41 pm.

    Norm, I’ve gone to the Google, but was unable to locate a study by Art Rolneck. I’d like to look at it; can you provide a link?

    Also, I don’t blame the poor for being poor. I’m pointing out that being poor is usually (but not always), the consequence of poor behavior and choices.

    There are certainly people out there that are on the skids through no misdeeds on their part, but under normal circumstances, people that conduct themselves rationally will get through tough times. It is the people that consistently and willingly run amok that remain chronically poor.

    Children are brought into chronically bad situations in furtherance of the uncaring behavior that made the parents poor in the first place.

    Listen, if generosity would solve the problem, it would have been solved years ago, but it’s gotten worse. We’re at the point today that we’re enabling people to screw their kids lives up.

    That is wrong all the way around.

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