Voices for Change

Advocacy ministries of the ELCA want to share stories and your voices about public policies and relevant advocacy issues that are of interest to you.

The People Behind the Policies

Posted on May 30, 2012 by Advocacy Ministries of the ELCA

This piece is part of the Minnesota installment of the “Advocating on the Road” blog series.

By Inyene Ekah,
Senior director for employment services,  Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota

I love helping people and was drawn to employment services, because in addition to helping, employment services also empower people to provide for themselves.  At Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, our goal is to move people from public assistance to self-sufficiency.   I have spent the last five years working with this population and have seen the impact of various public policies both at the state and federal level on these individuals and their families.  Through advocacy, we can help shape these policies that meet immediate needs, help people reach self-sufficiency, and shatter cycles of poverty.  

When provisions of the Minnesota Family Investment Program and related programs were recently highlighted for changes at the state legislature, our office saw first-hand how women, men, and children would suffer if assistance were restricted or impeded. 

Some lawmakers called for routine drug screenings for participants to be eligible for Minnesota Family Investment Program assistance.  While many of the people who come to Lutheran Social Services do not have a drug history, there are those who do have this  history some more recent than others and with varying severity. 

One woman comes to mind — she was a middle-class individual living the American Dream, until her personal issues interfered with her professional life.  This woman was working in a hospital as a registered nurse and had some problems with prescription drugs.  This resulted in losing her job and her house, and soon she was applying for Minnesota Family Investment Program assistance.  She was a single mother of three children. Because of the assistance through the Minnesota Family Investment Program, she was able to move to an apartment with her family and use the cash benefit to pay for rent and the food portion to feed her family.

If this mother had been denied this assistance, as a result of a positive drug test, the impact on her family would have been even more devastating. She was able to keep a roof over her head and feed her family in spite of the personal challenges she was experiencing because the program works.  Her life will be restored because of the temporary assistance given to her and she is on her way to working again and leaving assistance. 

Public programs, like the Minnesota Family Investment Program, should serve as a safety net for people in need, no matter how the need came about.  The need exists, therefore assistance must exist.  My experiences have led me to believe that these types of programs should be available for all who need it.

“My Name is Not ‘Those People’”

Posted on May 29, 2012 by Advocacy Ministries of the ELCA

This piece is part of the Minnesota installment of the “Advocating on the Road” blog series.

Minnesotan Julia Dinsmore has known poverty all of her life and is no stranger to homelessness. Her childhood was marked by frequent moves, chaos and episodes of violence — her mother struggled with mental illness, her father with alcoholism. As an adult, she has struggled to support herself and her three sons through insurmountable medical needs and expenses. “My dream is to earn enough money so I can get myself situated and help my kids and grandkids,” she says.

Julia uses her gifts in creative storytelling, music and poetry to educate others on the effects of poverty. Below is a link to a video presentation of her poem, “My Name is Not ‘Those People’”, which speaks to the importance of remembering the human stories and realities behind issues that are often looked at solely through a policy lens. 

As Christians, we must continually ask ourselves what was asked of Christ: “Who is my neighbor?” We must also ask ourselves, do I think of my neighbor as “the other”? Does my voice, and my vote, build a wall between myself and “those people”?

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQWbkVqZKeo&feature=youtu.be

Why I advocate in Minnesota

Posted on May 27, 2012 by Advocacy Ministries of the ELCA

This piece is part of the Minnesota installment of the “Advocating on the Road” blog series.
By Sheila Ehrich

As I have grown older and experienced more of life, I have come to realize how truly blessed I have been. For me, advocacy is something I do out of gratitude. I have always known that poverty, hunger and injustice exist. Over the years I have done what I could to address those issues both financially and with my time.

I grew up in an intact middle-class family. The expectation was that my sister and I would go to college. We both did, and my education at Gustavus Adolphus College served me well in a variety of jobs as well as with the many volunteer and advisory positions I have held over the years.

Following college I married and had two healthy children who have now grown up, gone to college, married, and one has a family of his own. There has always been food on my table (and in my pantry). I have always had clothes to wear, a car that ran, and a job that paid decently – usually with good benefits and a guaranteed roof over my head.

Even after being divorced and now in my current unemployment, I have come to know that I am truly blessed. Advocacy is something I do out of gratitude for all that I have been given – “to those to whom much is given, much is expected.” I also do it because people living in poverty are often so downtrodden – maligned in the press and by politicians and others, that they are sometimes unable to advocate for themselves beyond seeking public assistance.

As part of my job search I often check a number of non-profits to see if they have any openings. This spring I saw that the Lutheran Coalition for Public Policy in Minnesota was looking for volunteer help. I began a two-month opportunity of a lifetime to work almost fulltime at advocacy, advocating with and for people who live in poverty, who seek not a handout, but a hand up. I had the opportunity this spring to advocate for people in poverty, to stand alongside them and say, “I am not a criminal! I am just down on my luck. Please help me.”

Living in poverty in and of itself is very limiting in terms of energy and time. Facing people who have power is intimidating and often frightening. I do have the energy and time – and while many people are intimidated by those who hold power, I am not, so it is my duty to speak up for those who find it difficult, for whatever reason, to speak for themselves.

I have met and gotten to know a number of people living in poverty, some of them even working fulltime. As the recession hit I also saw members of my congregation struggle to hang onto their homes, sometimes not succeeding. They also struggled to put food on the table and to be able to send their kids on for post-secondary education. Some also came to struggle with addiction.

These were not rich people or people who were irresponsible. They were people like me who worked hard, took care of their families and looked forward to life being okay. We have all seen people living in poverty maligned and dehumanized on the news and in person, but over the last few years they have often been seen as criminals.

God calls upon all of us to act for the well-being of the poor and hungry, and those who face injustice whether they live in our Twin Cities’ neighborhoods, a community in Minnesota, or across the globe. Through advocacy, we have opportunities to help our neighbors reclaim their dignity and restore their lives. I believe we truly cannot separate our faith and the grace we have received from doing this aspect of God’s work.

 

 To join a growing national network of Lutherans advocating for public policy that serves the well-being of our vulnerable neighbors and God’s creation, click here

Speaking Out for Fair Assistance, Rejecting Harmful Rhetoric

Posted on May 18, 2012 by Advocacy Ministries of the ELCA

We open the Minnesota installment of the “Advocating on the Road” blog series with this piece.

By Mark Peters, director of the Lutheran Coalition for Public Policy in Minnesota, a State Policy Advocacy office of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

 

The advocacy road trip continues, pausing to explore poverty in Minnesota.  In recent years, Minnesotans have heard some policy makers malign people who use government assistance programs. In a scripted YouTube video, one state representative went so far as to compare people who receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP- formerly food stamps) to stray animals. After the video went viral across the Internet and on online news sources, the legislator was forced to apologize for this dehumanizing statement. While not all dialogue has sunk to this level, recently officials in the Minnesota state legislature have employed harsh rhetoric to allege criminal behavior and illegal activity among individuals who use social safety net programs.

Minnesota’s primary tool for moving children out of poverty is the Minnesota Family Investment Program. The program seeks to facilitate connections for their parents to work while providing enough income to lift their family out of poverty. All applicants are part of a family with children, and seven out of 10 recipients are children (and half of these children are under the age of 5). More than two-thirds of those turning to the program are women trying to work and care for children. 

The family investment program is crucial in addressing poverty — and its effects on children — in our state. The number of Minnesota children experiencing poverty has grown by 62 percent since 2000. About 4,500 youth are homeless in Minnesota each night, and half of Minnesotans served at food pantries are children. Programs like the Minnesota Family Investment Program help families with children cycle out of poverty: half of the families move from welfare-to-work within one year and 70 percent transition within three years.

During the recent Minnesota legislative session, there were more than a dozen bills proposed that, if passed, would directly and negatively affect families with children served by the family investment program. Among these provisions were denying benefits to anyone with a drug offense in the past 10-15 years and mandated criminal background checks and fingerprinting, paid for by an applicant currently living in poverty who is seeking benefits to support his or her family.

Debate on these bills centered on anecdotal evidence of fraud and abuse in the program, but there is scarce evidence to support these claims. Minnesota Health and Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson notes that, “The majority of people on the Minnesota Family Investment Program do not fit a pattern of fraud, abuse or misuse. They are working, but at very low-income jobs. They have serious health problems which limit their ability to hold a full-time job. They are new mothers or they are recently unemployed as a result of our challenging economic times.”

ELCA members mobilized to oppose provisions that would restrict the ability of our vulnerable neighbors to receive assistance from the family investment program. Two hundred Lutherans gathered at the State Capitol on Annual Interfaith Day on the Hill, with 600 others, to tell their legislators to denounce rhetoric that vilifies people in poverty and impedes access to the program’s services. Minnesota’s six ELCA bishops joined with the six Roman Catholic bishops and archbishop in sending a letter to the governor and legislators in March 2011, arguing that “The most telling measure of how well we care for each other is to consider how we treat those who are the most vulnerable among us.”  Advocates from the Lutheran Coalition for Public Policy in Minnesota testified in both House and Senate Health and Human Services committees, which helped turn the tide of the committee’s decision.

Ultimately none of these provisions to restrict access to the Minnesota Family Investment Program were included in the final bill. Commissioner Jesson thanked the faith community for their advocacy, saying that they played a major role in efforts to reject harmful family investment program restrictions. In April 2012 eight ELCA pastors in the Southeastern Minnesota Synod joined area Lutherans and representatives from local food providers in a meeting with Senate Majority Leader David Senjem. The group thanked Senator Senjem and his caucus, especially members of the Health and Human Services Committee, for listening to the concerns of Lutherans and other faith-based advocates.

Through their visits to the State Capitol and letters to officials, Lutherans in Minnesota urged their legislators to work for the common good. They stood up for civil and respectful dialog, rejecting rhetoric that maligns our neighbors, regardless of their life experiences or personal burdens. Lutherans pushed for fair assistance to those living in poverty, a proven step that helps individuals cycle out of hunger and homelessness.

Keep an eye on the ‘Advocating on the Road’ series on the Voices for Change blog for contributions from Minnesotans in the coming days.