Poorest of the poor would lose their last benefitsby Madeleine Baran, Minnesota Public Radio
Minneapolis — Advocates for the homeless warn that thousands of the state's poorest residents could lose their only source of income under the new budget proposed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
The governor's budget would eliminate General Assistance, the program that provides $203 a month in cash assistance to low-income single adults who are unable to work, and replace it with a less expensive crisis assistance program.
General Assistance served about 19,000 people each month in the last fiscal year, and is the only source of income for many homeless adults.
"It's a devastating cut," said Liz Kuoppala, executive director of Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. "These are folks who are waiting in line for federal disability. They don't have access to any other money."
Gerard Paige, who receives General Assistance, puts it another way.
"You take that little amount away and that could cause a big frenzy here in the city," he said.
Paige, who is 50, used to work as a caregiver for the elderly, but he said he's struggled with mental illness and chronic back pain in recent years.
After his last job, a two-day temporary assignment at a car wash in 2008, Paige applied for Social Security disability benefits, but his application is still pending.
Paige explained his monthly budget after eating dinner at Simpson Housing men's shelter in Minneapolis, where he spends most of his nights.
"I look forward to the first of the month," he said. "First, I get my cosmetics, my basic hygiene items. Then I get a haircut."
Next, Paige sends money to his son, who is a student at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. Then he decides whether he can afford a $10 or a $20 bus card.
"And by the time you do that, you don't have much else," he said.
Paige said he hopes to find a subsidized apartment and eventually get approved for Social Security benefits, but he expressed frustration at his situation and at the prospect of losing his only cash assistance.
"It's kind of difficult being low on the totem pole," he said. "Instead of people trying to help you when you reach up, they just push you back."
Paige and many other people living on General Assistance are also enrolled in General Assistance Medical Care, the state's health insurance program for low-income childless adults. The health insurance program has been the focus of intense debate after Pawlenty eliminated its funding last year.
News about the health care program's demise spread quickly through area homeless shelters, food banks, and community centers last summer. Low-income residents joined with social service agencies and advocacy groups to protest the program's elimination.
The Senate voted last week to extend GAMC by 16 months, but its future is uncertain since the House has yet to vote on it, and the governor has threatened to veto it.
Welfare recipient Virginia Weldon participated in the health insurance protests, and has spoken at legislative hearings about welfare reform. Still, she said, the elimination of the monthly cash program, General Assistance, was something she never expected.
"Why would you just all of a sudden want to take GA away?" she said. "People need money to survive."
Weldon, who is 46, receives $203 a month in General Assistance payments. She has lived in poverty for years after fleeing an abusive relationship. Chronic health problems have made it difficult for her to find work, and she hopes to be approved for Social Security disability benefits.
Now, she says she worries she'll lose her housing if her income drops to zero. Weldon waited eight years to receive a Section 8 subsidized housing voucher, and spends about $50 a month for her one-bedroom apartment in St. Paul.
"I'm just trying not to think about it because I know it'll stress me out," she said. "I just cross my fingers and hope for the best for myself. [Pawlenty's] not going to make me have a nervous breakdown."
Pawlenty has said the deep budget cuts are needed to fix the state's $1.2 billion budget deficit, and pay for tax cuts he says will create jobs.
"We all want to maintain Minnesota's quality of life. But the term 'quality of life' is an empty boast if people don't have jobs," Pawlenty said during his State of the State address last week.
The governor would replace General Assistance with a new "short-term assistance grant program to provide necessary services and supports for at-risk adults without children who are in crisis situations," according to budget documents released Monday.
Adults living in certain facilities, including battered women's shelters, would remain eligible for a reduced amount of monthly assistance. The current General Assistance program would end Dec. 1.
On Tuesday, Pawlenty said that Department of Human Services Commissioner Cal Ludeman will provide more information "in the coming days."
But Pawlenty has said little about the changes, and the new proposal has left many low-income people, legislators, and social service providers puzzled.
Minnesota already had a program for emergency assistance, but Pawlenty eliminated state funding for the program last year using his unallotment powers. That program, called Emergency General Assistance, provided one-time assistance to prevent evictions or utility shut-offs.
The governor's current budget proposal includes a request to ratify the unallotment and make the cuts to that program permanent.
According to the new budget proposal, the elimination of General Assistance and creation of the new program would save at least $14.3 million in the 2011 fiscal year, and nearly $21 million a year in 2012 and 2013.
The program's monthly grant amount -- $203 for single adults and $260 for couples -- has not increased since the mid-1980s, according to the state's Department of Human Services.
Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the Health and Human Services Budget Division, said her committee expects to receive more detailed information from the governor's office on Thursday.
Berglin said the elimination of General Assistance could be disastrous. "It'd be leaving a pretty big hole in the safety net," she said.
State Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, who chairs the Health, Housing and Family Security committee, said the governor could make other cuts to fix the state's deficit.
"It's an attempt to make the poorest and the sickest people pay the brunt of the economic problem," said Marty, who is also candidate for governor. "He's not going to talk about any taxes on people who make large amounts of money. Instead, he's going to, in effect, take people who are very sick and very poor and step on them a little further."
Marty said, though, he thinks the program could be eliminated, regardless of DFL opposition.
"It might actually happen because if the Legislature can't agree with [Pawlenty] on anything, he will presumably unallot it," Marty said. "And I think that would be a disaster."