A History of Minnesota's General Assistance Programby Madeleine Baran, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Some historians say that the dismantling of General Assistance programs marks a retreat back to the days when cities and towns had the responsibility of providing services for their poorest residents.
In Minnesota, before the General Assistance program was created in 1973, poor single adults had been served by a patchwork of county and township programs.
Some lived in "poor farms," where they earned their stay by milking cows and harvesting fields. Others had received money from local welfare boards to help pay for food and a place to live.
"It was really an unfair system to have some counties who may have a larger portion of the poorest people, and then, of course, they have a huge burden to pick up," said Don Samuelson, who served in the state legislature in the 1970s and supported the creation of General Assistance. "So we were trying to just sort of level the field across the state."
Under the legislation, the General Assistance program provided state funding for poor adults. By then, the poor farms had closed, and unemployed people needed cash to find a place to stay.
"This was a way to provide a little bit more dignity for people and keep them home and off the streets, hopefully," Samuelson said.
For two decades, the program served both disabled and non-disabled adults. People who were applying for federal disability used their General Assistance to survive until their federal benefits were approved. Unemployed people used the program to survive in between work.
Angelo Harris used the program in the mid-1980s, when he lost his job as a railroad diesel mechanic.
"It wasn't much," he said. "But it was enough for a few months when money was tight."
Harris said the program prevented him from becoming homeless, and made it easier for him to find a new job.
In 1985, the state divided the program's recipients into two categories: employable and unemployable. The state created a "Work Readiness" program for the employable adults, with the hope that some recipients would find work and would no longer need assistance.
But in 1995, the legislature eliminated the Work Readiness program. Adults who were considered able to work could no longer receive General Assistance.
Chuck Johnson, the assistant commissioner for Children and Family Services at the state's Department of Human Services, said Minnesota tried unsuccessfully to track what happened to people who lost their General Assistance grants when the state whittled down the program.
"Basically, they melted away and didn't show up in any of our systems," Johnson said. "It was surprising to everyone."