For Minnesota’s future, lawmakers should invest in our social safety net now

Dr. MayKao Y. Hang

Minnesota’s current legislative session has been dominated by one question: what should we do with a state surplus of almost two billion dollars? Gov. Dayton has provided his answer to this question with the release of his most recent budget proposal. Among his recommendations is an increase to the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP), which provides financial aid to 40,000 Minnesota families — including 70,000 children — in poverty. The increase, which would amount to an additional $100 per month per family, is long overdue. If funded, this will be the first increase to MFIP since 1986. In a time of surplus, I urge lawmakers to take a close look at MFIP and the potential it has to contribute to Minnesota’s economic stability.

I have the privilege of serving in a leadership capacity to assist those working to solve some of our most pressing challenges such as child welfare, school achievement, and employment disparities. None of these complex problems can be addressed without creating more opportunities for families to either regain or build their income stability. Funded at appropriate levels, MFIP provides that safety net.

A look at MFIP reveals facts often overlooked by critics. Parents enrolled in Minnesota’s welfare program must be working, searching for work, or enrolled in education or job training. Female-headed households with small children access MFIP as an alternative to unemployment benefits. They do so while often employed in trades such as child care or retail (it is no surprise industries most likely to employ women are the least likely to have workers receiving unemployment insurance benefits, according to a recession-era DEED report.) These hard working parents have experienced temporary setbacks. It’s worth noting the average length of stay on MFIP is three years — two years shorter than the lifetime MFIP limit. With MFIP, parents have the tools — or at the least the gas — to get to job interviews, to pull themselves up to become economically stable.

Look closer still and you’ll find that an increase in MFIP funding is a way to impact two generations with one stroke of the legislative pen. We know that a child who has a stable home environment is more likely to succeed in school than a child who has experienced homelessness or other stresses caused by deep poverty. When children aren’t worried about when they will have a next meal or if they will have a place to sleep, they are better able to learn.

Academic success is critical considering the demographics of our workforce. In Minnesota, an estimated 169 Baby Boomers retire every day and will continue to do so through 2030. Because the state’s workforce is not predicted to keep pace with this trend, we need every child to succeed in school and be ready for employment. Raising the cash grant to MFIP alone is not enough, but if we want to close our state’s achievement gap and workforce gap, MFIP is a key part of the solution.

What can happen in 29 years? In 1986 I was 14 and still on free lunch at Como Park Senior High in St. Paul. The odds back then were more in my favor; the welfare cash grants my family received covered more expenses than today. With a 1.8 billion dollar surplus, it’s time to take MFIP off the shelf. Our economic investment may not bear fruit immediately, but rest assured, these poor children do grow up. Though it’s easy to attribute character flaws to those who become temporarily poor, there are more of us than the public might think who move on to become fully productive and contributing citizens.

Dr. MayKao Y. Hang is President and CEO of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. She serves as Co-Chair of the Itasca Socio-Economic Disparities Work Group, Deputy Chair of the Board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, and a Board Member of Minnesota Philanthropy Partners.

This post was originally published on Community Matters.

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