Advocates: Grants program can't replace Pawlenty's proposed cuts to the poorby Madeleine Baran, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Thousands of Minnesota's poorest residents still stand to lose their only source of income if Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget passes, despite a new welfare program the governor said would replace it.
The state's department of human services today unveiled more information about a new program offering short-term grants that Pawlenty said would offset his proposed cuts. Low-income adults could access the crisis program only once per year, unlike the current program, which provides up to $203 a month.
"It doesn't do anything for people's day-to-day expenses," said Liz Kuoppala, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. "It's basically a panhandling bill. It's going to force people onto the streets for money, and I don't think that's what Minnesotans want."
The governor had announced Monday that his proposed budget would eliminate General Assistance, the program that provides the monthly payments to low-income childless adults who are unable to work. At the time, Pawlenty said a new program could replace it, but declined to provide details.
The announcement sparked outcry from people living in poverty, legislators and social service providers. The General Assistance program 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 economic abuse," said Virginia Weldon, a General Assistance recipient living in St. Paul. "If you can't get no job, what are you supposed to do?"
Under the governor's new proposal, the state would provide counties with grants to create local short-term assistance programs. Pawlenty's budget would allocate $6 million in funding for the 2010-2011 fiscal years, followed by $22 million in the 2012-2013 budget cycle.
Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, said that counties would be able to tailor the program to suit local needs.
"The money may not even end up going to the same people who are on GA," Berglin said.
The program has also left many social service providers puzzled.
Minnesota already had a similar program, called Emergency General Assistance, but Pawlenty eliminated the program's state funding last year using his unallotment powers. The program provided one-time assistance to prevent evictions or utility shut-offs. Homeless adults also used the program to pay for their first month's rent when they found housing.
The governor's budget proposal includes a request to ratify the unallotment of Emergency General Assistance, and make cuts to that program permanent.
"It doesn't make any sense why you'd eliminate a new program and create a new one that looks just like it," Kuoppala said. "You've just kind of got to wonder how much thought went into these cuts."
The governor's office declined a request for comment. "We won't be issuing separate statements on each of the proposed reductions, including General Assistance," said Pawlenty's spokesman Brian McClung via email.
According to the Department of Human Services, the changes would save $13.76 million in the 2011 fiscal year.
About 4,400 General Assistance recipients live in licensed residential facilities, including family violence shelters, and receive just $89 a month. The governor's budget would not cut funding to those recipients.
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.
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 that eliminating the program is relatively inexpensive and would do little to solve the state's budget deficit problem. The program's monthly grant amount has not increased since 1986, when it changed from $201 a month to $203.
Under the governor's budget, General Assistance would end Dec. 1.
The Senate's Health and Human Services Budget Division will hear public testimony on the impact of the budget recommendations next week.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Pawlenty's budget would allocate $12 million in funding for 2010-2011. This has since been fixed to the correct amount of $6 million.
- All Things Considered, 02/19/2010, 5:25 p.m.