In June of 2007, a group of 18 Minnesota legislators convened a panel with an ambitious title and an aspirational goal: they were “The Commission To End Poverty in Minnesota by 2020.”
Eighteen months, four public hearings, a 10-stop statewide listening tour and numerous meetings later, the commission issued a report that aimed to do just what it said: end poverty in just 10 years.
“The Commission’s overall mission and vision are captured in both its name and its guiding principles, which were first articulated in the Minnesota faith community,” read the summary. “The consensus in the faith community is that the existence of poverty, and our acceptance of it, counters the most basic values of justice.”
To reach their goal, commission members called for an increase in the minimum wage; expanded working family tax credits; more child care help; and credits for small businesses. They wanted increased state and federal spending on affordable housing; better access to transportation; restrictions on predatory lending and other schemes that rob poor people of assets; more help for at-risk children and teens; and a modernized education system with better early childhood education.
Both the co-chairs of the commission are still in the state Legislature: Rep. Carlos Mariani of St. Paul and Sen. John Marty of Rosedale. Because the DFL was in the majority of both houses then, their members led the commission but there were Republicans on it as well, along with a pair of non-voting appointees by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
There are a few other members of the commission still in the Legislature: Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, Sen. Bruce Anderson, R-Buffalo Township, Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, Sen. Sandra Pappas, DFL-St Paul and Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls.
Mariani last month called leading the commission, “one of the greatest privileges and frankly one of the most-humbling experiences I’ve had in my couple decades here.”
But the year 2020 — the deadline set in the commission’s report and title — is only nine months away, and nobody who took part in that project nor anyone working within the Legislature or in the non-governmental organizations that work to advocate for the poor thinks the goal can be met.
A renewed effort?
“Every major faith tradition on earth puts the poor at the center, as a pillar, of its concern,” said Lutheran Rev. Grant Stephenson, who is a leader in the religious social justice organization ISAIAH. “And that’s why so many faith leaders gathered 10 years ago to sign a declaration that the state should end poverty by 2020.”
“Why? Because we can and because we must,” he said. “But we have hardly made progress. You can point to places where good things have happened but the rate of poverty in this state is about where it was 10 years ago.”
More than 533,000 people in Minnesota, including 160,000 children, live in households below the federal poverty level today. Other benchmarks included in the report have also been missed, including reducing poverty rates among people of color to at least the national average; and of reducing by half the poverty rates for children.
The state also took advantage of the federal Affordable Care Act to increase access to health insurance for low-income residents, even though the commission didn’t know the law known as Obamacare was on the horizon.
In a broader sense, Mariani and Marty acknowledge, the goals were not met. Mariani notes that the report came out in the midst of the Great Recession. “It seemed like a great time to address poverty, absolutely,” he said. “But quite frankly at that time we were just trying to figure out how to keep a poor level of services of state government as the economic impact was so profound on our entire society.”
Marty said he and others have introduced bills to address wages and health care and income taxes and public assistance. They just haven’t been passed.
Now that the U.S. economy is approaching its longest-lasting expansion, the onetime co-chairs want to renew the effort. Gov. Tim Walz’s first budget included an increase in basic welfare grant, known as the Minnesota Family Investment Program, or MFIP, by $100 per month, which would be the first increase since 1986. And Marty wants to expand working family tax credits at a cost of $100 million, some of which are refundable and send money to low-income people even when they have no tax owed. His budget also has money to expand access to child care assistance, add support for affordable housing.
Marty and Mariani have also announced what they call the “Moving Out of Poverty” package of bills — Senate File 622 and House File 1836 — to increase the minimum wage to $16 an hour, double the working family tax credit, eliminate the waiting list for people to get child care assistance, and increase the MFIP by $300 a month.
The package includes a source of money to pay for the bills. The pair propose imposing an income tax of 6.2 percent on the income of state earners who make more than $132,900. That is the income level where the federal government stops collecting Social Security taxes to pay for that system. Marty said the increase would raise $1.2 billion a year.
While it is unlikely such a large tax increase would pass the GOP Senate, let alone the DFL House, there is no obligation for the sponsors to come up with a source of income. “I think there’s been a change in the political dynamics here at the capital in the last year or so. I think we have a real chance to move forward and start passing some of these,” Marty said, mustering an optimistic reference to the 2020 goal of the commission: “We still have a year to go.”