When the Minnesota Legislature convened for the 2022 legislative session in January, a full docket of pressing policy and funding priorities — addressing everything from housing to human services to infrastructure and more — awaited, along with a historic $9 billion surplus.
As United Way leaders embedded in communities across the state, we have unique, firsthand knowledge of the most pressing needs that individuals and families are experiencing in both the Twin Cities metro area and Greater Minnesota. Many of these leading priorities and policy solutions are included within Greater Twin Cities United Way’s 2022 Policy and Advocacy Agenda, like addressing the benefits cliff; advancing the construction, preservation and rehabilitation of affordable housing through bonding investments, and increasing access to critical child care for families. While the Legislature addressed a small number of other issues, substantial work was left unfinished at the end of session, with significant dollars left uninvested for those who need it most.
This lack of action to make strategic, targeted investments in our communities has wrought painful impacts on individuals and families as they try to navigate the economic backlash of a long pandemic recovery. It has created barriers to economic independence for many households, preventing Minnesotans from accessing basic resources like affordable housing, child care and disability services, and has exacerbated mental health challenges. Compounding the current economic backlash is the benefits cliff, which keeps families from gaining financial independence when small, incremental income gains cause benefits that cover costs for things like child care, housing, or health to abruptly disappear and result in a sizable net loss to households.
Legislative action to provide a road to recovery is critically needed.
The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened our relentless affordable housing crisis. Due to rapidly rising costs, hundreds of thousands of individuals across the state are struggling to find and retain stable housing, with many just one emergency away from being unable to pay their mortgage or rent. In 2021 alone, the statewide United Way 211 resource helpline received more than 485,000 calls related to housing needs, representing 60 percent of all resource requests received. We know that secure, stable housing is an important component to ensure a safe, healthy future. We must continue to invest in solutions that ensure everyone has a place they can call home.
There is a desperate lack of child care. Regardless of location, United Way leaders across the state have seen families struggle to access affordable child care options, resulting in an emergency that has left over 35,000 children in Minnesota without the quality care, education and other vital resources they require. Central Minnesota alone is short 5,000 in-demand child care spots. The child care shortage has severely impacted many communities’ ability to recover from the pandemic by decreasing workforce participation and constraining local economies — all while employers struggle to fill open positions. Increasing state investment in quality, culturally competent child care for all families to access is essential to the wellbeing of children, their parents and our statewide workforce.
Pressures are also mounting at an unsustainable pace on the organizations and the staff who provide services to individuals with developmental disabilities. With more than 170 group homes across Minnesota having closed in the last year and over two-thirds of direct support professionals leaving the job within their first year, there is a concerning confluence of factors pressing down on hundreds of communities across the state in the disability services area, risking total system collapse. To avoid this outcome, the Legislature should provide immediate relief by adjusting the outdated reimbursement formula used to support programs and their staff that assist individuals with disabilities.
Minnesotans are resilient, but too many continue to struggle to get back on their feet. Immediate action must be taken to address the urgent community challenges — the benefits cliff; stable, affordable housing; accessible child care, and secure, reliable disability services systems. The urgencies of these realities, paired with the slow recovery and rebuilding processes from the pandemic, have only been made more difficult by rising inflation rates and greater economic uncertainty. The luxury for communities to be flexible and patient, to wait until next year for such relief, no longer exists.
That is why we are calling on legislators and the governor to return to the Capitol and finish their work in a special session. We have the expertise and solutions. We have the dollars. All that is missing are the lawmakers — who we implore to come together to pass bipartisan solutions for direct community investments that will yield lasting, positive outcomes and build pathways to a thriving economy across the state.
Acooa Ellis, Greater Twin Cities United Way; Jerome Ferson, United Way of Olmsted County, and Matt Hunter, Head of the Lakes United Way. Larry Olness of the United Way of Central Minnesota also signed this piece.