Minn. could join other states in cutting welfare programs for single adultsby Madeleine Baran, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — When Freddy Toran started going blind, he said he considered himself lucky to be living in Minnesota.
Toran had moved to the state after he lost his job at a steelworker in Missouri six years ago. He found work as a baker in Minneapolis, but his vision started to fail. Within a few years, he was diagnosed with glaucoma, lost his job and ended up homeless.
"From something to nothing in like overnight, that do hurt a person," Toran said.
Out of work, broke and disabled, Toran, 49, headed to the Hennepin County welfare office, where he learned he could receive $203 a month from a state program known as General Assistance. Disabled and sick adults without children are eligible for the payments.
Toran said he was surprised to learn of the program. His home state, Missouri, didn't have anything like it.
"We are blessed to have what we have here in Minnesota," he said on a recent afternoon at his new one-room apartment. The building sits next to the freeway near downtown Minneapolis, with a view of the shelter where Toran used to sleep.
But Toran worries he could end up homeless again if the legislature approves Gov. Tim Pawlenty's welfare cuts. In February, the governor proposed eliminating General Assistance, which covers about 19,000 Minnesotans.
The governor's proposed cuts would align Minnesota with a growing number of states, like Missouri, that have dropped their General Assistance programs. Nationwide, twenty-nine states do not provide any cash assistance to poor adults without children, according to a 2009 study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. Many other states have reduced their programs to cover just a small percentage of adults living in poverty.
Unlike welfare programs for families, General Assistance programs do not receive any federal funding, nor do they have to follow any federal guidelines. Welfare policy analysts say this makes the programs vulnerable to state budget crises and political attacks.
"It's not a population that has a lot of political support," said Sheila Zedlewski, director of the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute. "People want to help children and don't want them to suffer if their families don't have jobs and income, but there's less sympathy for the single adults. They seem to get the brunt when cuts are being made."
By the mid-1990s, none of Minnesota's neighboring states --- Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota --- offered assistance to poor adults without children.
In Missouri, legislators changed the monthly grant from $80 to $9 to $70, before eliminating all funding from the program in 2003.
Many states, including Minnesota, have scaled back their programs. Welfare policy analysts say the most significant changes occurred in the mid-1990s, when most states stopped providing assistance to people who are able to work but cannot find a job.
This restriction now limits the programs primarily to people who are applying for federal disability benefits. The programs provide a source of income while people wait --- often as long as two years --- to be approved for federal assistance.
Toran applied for federal disability benefits six months ago, and he hasn't heard back yet. In the meantime, he relies on his $203 monthly grant to cover his rent and other expenses.
He said he hopes that he'll be approved for federal benefits soon, so he won't have to worry about losing his income.
"I don't want to go back to living on the streets again," Toran said. "It's just like you climbing a ladder and you get to the top and someone's there just waiting to push you right back down again. That's a hurting feeling."
In other states, it takes more than being disabled and unemployed to receive assistance.
For instance, Illinois provides $100 a month to people who meet a narrow set of criteria, including those who are homeless due to a court-ordered eviction, domestic violence, fire, or natural disaster, and people taking medications for seizures, severe high blood pressure, or diabetes.
Illinois legislators had proposed cutting the payments to $50 a month last year, but the effort was unsuccessful.
Nationwide, payments range from $100 in Illinois and Kansas to $434 in Vermont.
In Minnesota, legislators increased the monthly grant by $2 in 1986. The amount has stayed the same ever since.
But not all states have eliminated or sharply restricted their programs.
In New York, the program is protected by an amendment to the state's constitution, passed during the Great Depression. The amendment states, in part: "the aid, care and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the State."
Michigan eliminated its program in the mid-1990s, but reinstated it after the state saw a sharp increase in the number of homeless people.
"It really was a big issue," said Barbara Anders, deputy director of financial and quality services at the Michigan Department of Human Services. "There was quite an outcry."
The state now provides $269 a month for 10,500 adults with an illness or disability.
"They're kind of a forgotten group," said Anders. "They aren't covered by any federal program. Especially in Michigan, with our current economic woes, this is a group of people who are very, very at risk."
Some welfare policy analysts have called for the federal government to pay for General Assistance programs. With federal funding, they argue, poor adults without children could have steady access to a reliable program, regardless of where they live. And the programs would not be at risk during state economic downturns.
"When state coffers are flush, the very poorest of the poor always have a difficult time," said Stephen Pimpare, historian and author of A People's History of Poverty in America. "But when the economy tanks, it gets so ugly and so brutal and so horrible."
Pimpare and others have also suggested that the federal government provide temporary assistance to fund these programs during economic downturns.
In Minnesota, the General Assistance program faces an uncertain future. Pawlenty has said that deep cuts are needed to fix the state's $1 billion deficit. The elimination of General Assistance would save at least $14.3 million in the 2011 fiscal year, and nearly $21 million a year in 2012 and 2013.
The governor's office has declined requests for comment on the proposed General Assistance cuts.
Key DFL legislators say they oppose Pawlenty's plan, but DFL-controlled committees in the House and Senate have not yet released their budget proposals.
In the meantime, low-income people and social service providers have started a new coalition, called Stand Together Minnesota, to fight the cuts.
Coalition organizer Cathy Heying argues that despite the national trend, Minnesota should not eliminate the program.
"Minnesota has always been a leader in treating people with dignity and ensuring that people's basic needs are met," Heying said. "I would like to believe that we would continue to move upward in that, and not backward and downward."
Back at his new apartment, Toran said it's hard to avoid thinking about how his life would change if the program were eliminated.
"It's mind boggling," he said. "What would I do? I mean I'd have to do something to survive. I don't know. I just don't want to go out committing crimes just to try to keep my rent paid."