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.