Welfare reform affects local counties

This article submitted by Linda Stelling on 03/11/97.

Mandated changes in the welfare program will have a profound effect on many Minnesotans, states the report Work in Progress: Federal Welfare Reform in Minnesota. About 200,000 Minnesotans on some form of welfare were among the first to feel the shift of the new law as March 1 was the deadline for changes in the Food Stamp program.

What is welfare? It is the state providing cash assistance, food stamps and medical assistance to those living under the poverty level. The term welfare has been used since World War II to refer to the governments responsibility for the well-being of its people. Welfare programs grew after World War II to include: aid to families with dependent children (AFDC), supplemental security income, general assistance, food stamps, day-care, emergency assistance, Medicaid, school lunches, women, infants and children (WIC), and low-income enegy assistance program, to name a few.

Welfare reform was started under President Nixon in 1969, President Carter in 1977 and President Reagan in 1981. The new welfare reform program under President Clinton wants to move people out of poverty. Aimed at putting welfare recipients to work, the laws impact will be far-reaching. It will affect child care workers as they will see an increased demand for services, and grocery stores could lose profits because of reductions in the food stamp benefits. Employers will see a larger number of people looking for work. One goal is to get people into rewarding jobs, states the Minnesota Planning Agency.

Welfare reform is receiving priority during this legislative session. To make reform a reality, more areas are being involved such as: child care, health care and transportation. All need to be in place for reform to work, Clark Gustafson, Meeker County Social Service, said. Presently, there are three bills before the Senate and several others before the House.

Doug Stang, R-Paynesville, is co-sponsoring legislation that would impose a limit on the welfare benefits new Minnesota residents could receive. Pending legislation states that as of April 1, noncitizens, including legal immigrants, will lose their food stamp benefits as they are reviewed on the federal level. Stang added that on July 1, those receiving state and federal grants for families, formerly known as AFDC will face new work requirements to be determined yet by the state legislature.

Members of the Senate Health and Family Security committee recently agreed to provide money to people who will lose food stamps and would be at nutritional or medical risks without them. Food stamps equal about $63 a month for each individual. The new plan would give $35 of that amount in coupons to purchase Minnesota-grown products and $28 in cash.

Dotty Liszka, Stearns County Social Services, said the welfare reform is affecting many in the county. As of Dec. 1, 1996, food stamp benefits were limited to three months for able-bodied adults without dependent children. About 20 households in Stearns County will have reached the three-month limit by March 1. In addition to the Food Stamp limit outlined in the Senate bill, there are changes for noncitizens in the food stamp program, medical assistance and AFDC programs.

John Haines, Kandiyohi County Social Services, said the number of food stamp recipients in 1996 was down from a year ago, as well as the number on general assistance. Haines added Kandiyohis numbers in the AFDC program have been dropping, even before reform was started. At one point, we had as many as 700 cases, Haines said. The economy affects the numbers a great deal.

Gustafson, Meeker County Social Services, said it is hard to define who is eligible for aid as there are so many exceptions to the rule... number of children and job search play into the rulings. Gustafson said one-fourth of the welfare recipients in Meeker County are generational welfare families. The other three-fourths are new to the system with a handful incapacitated. Those incapacitated were defined as: poor school performance, have attitude problems, work marginal jobs and many work off and on. Those used to the system are in denial that they wont lose their benefits, he added. We posted signs and sent letters explaining that changes were brewing. The thrust of the program is to get self-sufficient, however, the federal government is promoting that people get any job.

We have the workers but they are not trained to do anything, Gustafson emphasized. The state dictates that in Meeker County there are 140 people who need to get out and get a job compared to 8,000 in Hennepin County. We are working with businesses and the public to promote giving our clients a chance. But the clients also have to cooperate

In Stearns County, one adult and one child can receive up to $437 per month from the current AFDC program, Minnesota Supplemental Assistance for one person averages $812 a month and general assistance per person per month is $203. Out of that amount, they must pay rent, utilities and purchase food.

Haines said when the welfare program was started in 1935, it was originated so mothers could stay at home with their children. Today, the message is to get out and work.

Haines, Gustafson, and Liszka all agree the new reform program (Minnesota Family Investment Program) puts the emphasis on work. The pilot program worked pretty well, Gustafson added. Instead of separate checks for food stamps, general assistance, and AFDC, under MFIP everything is lumped into one check.

The Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP), a comprehensive state/county welfare reform experiment, will be modified for statewide use to more quickly move families to work and self-sufficiency. As a demonstration project in eight counties, early evaluation results show the program was successful in moving welfare recipients to work.

When able-bodied cash recipients do not cooperate with searching for work or accepting work, there will be sanctions applied to them and their families. Legislative bills being considered by the state legislature have sanctions that run as high as 35 percent for the family. This would include taking many of the noncooperative parents off the grant. The sanctions vary from case to case. Any remaining money issued for the children would be vendored for rent and utilities.

Among the key components of the new MFIP program are:
Expecting work-Parents will be expected to begin supporting their families within strict time limits or their benefits will be reduced.
Two-parent families will be required to immediately work to receive assistance.
Single-parent families will be required to work within six months of receiving assistance to continue receiving aid.
Parents who fail to go to work or follow through with other activities to support their families will have their assistance reduced by 25 to 35 percent.
There will be a 60-month lifetime limit on the time people can be on assistance.
A requirement which started October 1996 requires that 25 percent of all single-parent families participate in work activities increases to 50 percent in 2002. For two-parent families, that percentage is increased from 50 percent in the first year to 90 percent by 1999.

Supporting work-Working families will receive help with subsidized child and health care.
All families moving from welfare to work will get help paying for child care.
Rules that make it difficult for two-parent families to stay together are eliminated.
Families will receive help with quick job placement to gain work skills.

Rewarding work-Working families will receive an income supplement as they work their way out of poverty, leaving public assistance when their income reaches 120 percent of the poverty level, allowing families to be more financially stable and less likely to fall back on welfare. Under the current Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, a family leaves assistance when their income reaches 85 percent of the poverty level.

Simplifying welfare-AFDC, family general assistance, food stamps and employment and training programs will be replaced with MFIP, simplifying and streamlining program administration. Food stamp and cash assistance will be consolidated into a single program to support working families.

Strict residency requirements-(These will make welfare a neutral factor for those moving to Minnesota.)
Most newcomers will not receive benefits for the first 30 days in the state, as they establish residency.
Most newcomers will receive the benefit they would have received in the state where they previously lived.
Newcomers will have the time that they received benefits in another state applied to the 60-month limit, or if they have used up their limit in another state, they will receive no assistance.

Employment and training help-Welfare recipients will receive assistance to find and keep jobs. The emphasis will be on quick job placement with job supports.
Recipients will be expected to take the most direct path to a job that can be combined with income supplements if needed.
Recipients will have a one-year limit on welfare-supported education activities.
County agencies will have more flexibility and additional options based on local labor markets to meet federal work requirements.

Medicaid reform-Comprehensive Medicaid reform was not included in this bill. However, several important changes were made for categorical eligibility for Medicaid base on receipt of welfare.
Generally a state may not lower its income and asset requirements below what they were for the AFDC program on July 16, 1996. A state can modify these frozen requirements in three ways.
Families losing eligibility for cash assistance due to increased child support will receive four months of transitional Medicaid and those losing cash assistance from increased earning will receive 12 months.
Transitional assistance provisions, due to sunset in 1998 are expended to 2001.
States will have the option to terminate medical assistance for persons denied cash assistance because of refusal to work; pregnant women and minor children are, however, protected.

Food Stamps-The Food Stamp program retains its current structure as an uncapped, individual entitlement.
Able-bodied individuals (without children) between the ages of 18 and 50 may receive food stamps for only three months in a 36-month period unless they are working 20 hours a week or participating in a work program.
Workers who are laid off can receive food stamps for an additional three months in a 36-month program.
New provisions are effective upon enactment with the exception of some budgetary changes, which are effective Oct. 1, 1997.

For complete information, contact the county social service office nearest you:
Meeker County 320-693-5300
Stearns County 320-656-6000
Kandiyohi County 320-231-6232

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