Welfare reform bill comes at a good time

Some legislators want to push ahead with bills, and a favorite topic is welfare.

This session is no exception with legislators introducing bills among other things to require those receiving benefits to be tested for drugs.

Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, who is the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee chair, conducted a hearing on his reform bill which has bi-partisan support.

Since the Minnesota Legislature cut $2 billion from the Human Services budget, along with other reforms, the legislature would be wise to leave this area alone, despite some legislators’ insistence to reform welfare.

Rep. Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, wants to change the number of years a mother with dependent children could get benefits from five to three years in the Minnesota Family Investment Program.

Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, has a bill that would require drug testing for anyone applying for the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP).

Abeler’s bill would forbid EBT card holders from buying prohibited items such as tobacco and alcohol. Card holders found guilty of such purchases three times would lose the card. The bill also would limit EBT cash fund use to Minnesota and neighboring states.

Another provision in Abeler’s bill would remove income asset caps so disabled would not have to spend down their incomes or not have to work to keep their program eligibility.

Welfare is easy to demonize.

People have visions of loafers living off the government.

In reality, according to Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, the majority of people in MFIP are working at very low-income jobs, have serious health problems, are new mothers or are recently unemployed.

There are two major welfare programs in this state. One is the Minnesota Family Investment Program which is designed to move children out of poverty and supporting workers with enough assistance so they can get work.

The other program is food assistance, once known as food stamps, and funded entirely by the federal government.

A family of three, two children and one adult, with no other income and meeting the poverty threshold, can qualify monthly for $532 in cash and $473 in food support.

In 2011, the average number of MFIP cases was 42,533, and the average number of persons served a month was 116,428. As for food support, average number of households per month was 221,364 and the average number of recipients per month was 469,904.

In state fiscal year 2011, the state spending for MFIP, including the Diversionary Work program, Work Benefit and MFIP and food assistance, was $101 million. Federal spending was $240 million, including $168 million for food assistance.

Compare those numbers to the human services general fund budget for fiscal years 2012-2013 of $10,690,091,000.  (That’s billions with a B.)

So, 1.6   percent of the total state general fund budget is designated for the program to help families with children. Get this. Some 78.9 percent of the total general fund budget is designated for health care.

This is the year to let the Human Services Department catch its breath from all of last year’s changes. Abler’s bill appears to do just that. — Don Heinzman