The pandemic has caused significant hardships for families and individuals across the country. Over the past few years thousands of Minnesotans were forced by pandemic-induced job loss or the death of a principal wage-earner to seek assistance to feed their families, care for older family members or pay for child care. The pandemic forced many individuals to access federal assistance for the first time ever simply to make ends meet. For others, it drastically deepened their reliance on critical federal support. Community Action agencies and other social service providers across the state struggled to meet the high demand while dealing with sudden staff shortages, vaccine mandates, and the impact of the pandemic on their own families. While things have seemed to return to an uneasy normal, the resilience of the social safety net to respond to the next crisis has been stress-tested to the near breaking point.
The Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota released a report on poverty in Minnesota with MinnCAP earlier this spring. The report sheds light on Minnesota’s poverty disparities, and for many Minnesotans, particularly Black and Native American households, federal benefits programs and income are not enough to cover the costs of meeting their basic needs. According to this newly released report, more than 20% of Blacks and nearly 30% of Native Americans in Minnesota were in poverty. While federal benefits programs can help low income individuals meet their basic needs and mitigate the effects of poverty, for many Minnesotans, especially Black, Indigenous, and people of color households, the costs of these basic needs are too high to be offset by federal assistance programs. Individuals and families of color are at a much greater risk of slipping into poverty the next time our economy is rocked by unforeseen events.
MinnCAP organized a conference in Duluth last month, Setting a New Priority: Racial Equity and Poverty Solutions for a Prosperous Minnesota. The conference elevated the poverty report’s findings with hundreds of attendees from across the state. Speakers covered post-pandemic conditions in various areas of need for the lowest income Minnesotans, including health care, older adult services, food and nutrition, and early childhood education. Participants also considered the impact that race identity plays in Minnesota’s poverty landscape, confronting the fact that Minnesota leads the nation in disparities in economic outcomes between persons of color and their white neighbors.
Conference participants looked to the future, hearing from local government leaders shaping new responses to financial hardship, social services providers rethinking their approaches to service delivery, and from poverty survivors who have changed their lives with the help of compassionate community resources. Together, attendees helped to shape a near-term call to action focused on the most pressing needs of struggling families:
Funding to allow older adults to age in place, extending the child tax credit and funding for employment and money management services.
Studies have confirmed that for most older adults, remaining in their homes is the most cost-effective solution, and the one most strongly preferred by most. Aging in place safely is out of reach for many low- and moderate-income older adults, as home repairs like railing and ramp installation or hiring help around the house are often cost-prohibitive.
The recent one-year addition of a tax credit for minor children proved enormously effective in preventing childhood poverty. While action at the federal level would be required for an extension of the credit against federal taxes, the Minnesota Child and Dependent Care Credit could be extended by state legislators.
Programs at the state level to assist job seekers in finding employment that pays living wages, coupled with programs to provide money management education, beginning in K-12 curricula through adult learning opportunities, have proven effective in helping struggling families become self-sufficient.
The conference keynote speaker, Indivar Dutta-Gupta, who leads the Center for Law and Social Policy, reminded attendees that poverty is incompatible with freedom – that none of us are free as long as so many remain in poverty’s grip. To move towards freedom, we need to make smart investments, like those listed above, to yield big dividends in closing disparities and changing lives.
This next legislative session we will utilize our poverty report and conference findings to impact our legislative agenda. We implore Minnesota lawmakers and policymakers to take action to invest in our citizens struggling every day to live in dignity and respect.
Bill Grant is the executive director of Minnesota Community Action Partnership.