Funding uncertainty takes toll on state's poorest residentsby Madeleine Baran, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Robert Fischer started out last year with big plans to improve his health, find a job, and get off welfare.
But the Minneapolis resident decided to put those plans on hold when Gov. Tim Pawlenty began to propose deep cuts in assistance programs for poor people.
Like dozens of other Minnesotans living in poverty, Fischer threw himself into organizing against the cuts, holding meetings at homeless shelters, speaking with legislators, and educating himself on public policy.
For Fischer, there was a lot at stake. He faced losing his medical coverage when Pawlenty removed funding for General Assistance Medical Care last year. In February, he learned that the governor wanted to eliminate his only source of income -- $203 a month from a program called General Assistance.
"I was really dedicated to that cause," he said.
After months of uncertainty -- and with DFL legislators and the Republican governor still unable to reach a compromise on the budget -- welfare recipients like Fischer say the endless delays are taking a psychological toll.
Many say they have come to dread reading the newspaper or even thinking about the proposed cuts. The prospect of losing their income and becoming homeless is too frightening to imagine, some say.
"You're just worried because you don't know what you're going to plan on, what's going to happen," Fischer said. "It just changes a lot of things, like how you're going to survive."
Fischer and others say that they are cautious about placing too much hope in any single budget development at the Capitol. Welfare recipients argue that they have good reason to be wary.
For example, the state Legislature narrowly passed a budget bill Monday that eliminated most of Pawlenty's welfare cuts, but the governor vetoed the legislation the next day. Pawlenty has said the bill doesn't do enough to address a projected nearly $5 billion deficit for the 2012-2013 budget cycle.
Similarly, lawmakers and the governor compromised on a deal to save General Assistance Medical Care in March, only to have that plan unravel in recent weeks. DFL lawmakers have proposed an alternate plan to enroll recipients into Medicaid, but Republicans have rejected the proposal as too costly.
Freddy Toran, who suffers from glaucoma, said he tries not to think about the power that legislators have over his health care and monthly income. Toran survives on $203 in General Assistance, $200 in food support, and occasional money from day labor.
He recalls the day when he first heard that he could lose his health care coverage under Pawlenty's initial plan to eliminate General Assistance Medical Care.
"I thought, 'Wow, I can't believe this is being done. They're not thinking about the lower-class poor people that depend on this assistance.'" he said. "And it really bothered me to the next step of what I'm going to do if they cut it."
Like Fischer, Toran has rallied at the Capitol, appeared in protest videos, and received a crash course in state fiscal policy from anti-poverty organizers.
He said his efforts have helped distract himself from thinking about how his life would change if he loses his welfare grant and his health insurance. But, Toran said he hasn't been able to stop thinking about his worst fear -- that he might be driven to commit crimes to pay his rent if he loses his income.
"That would be the wrong way of living, but nobody can live under those conditions," he said.
The strain on social services
Social service providers say they have struggled with how to relay the rapidly changing budget proposals to their clients.
"We tried not to instill too much worry," said Monica Nilsson, street outreach director for St. Stephen's Human Services in Minneapolis. "I hate to sound cynical, but in my experience the poor are often the pawns. Almost regularly every other year there's this additional stress that funding will be cut."
At the same time, Nilsson said it's critical for welfare recipients to know that lawmakers are considering cutting assistance programs, in part because it allows poor people to enter into the public debate about the budget cuts.
Advocates for the poor say that information has helped low-income Minnesotans play an unexpectedly significant role in the state's budget debate. People living in poverty testified at the state legislature this year about the impact of the cuts, and organized dozens of protests calling on lawmakers to save programs for the poorest residents.
Deborah Schlick, executive director of the advocacy group Affirmative Options, said last week's state Supreme Court decision highlights the power that poor people have when they fight back. The Court struck down Pawlenty's cuts to a nutrition program after six low-income and disabled Minnesotans challenged whether the governor had the authority to make the cuts.
"Everyone was talking about how the governor abused his unallotment powers," said Schlick. "But in the end, it was a group of six people living in poverty who actually decided to do something about it."
Now, after months of rallies and meetings, some welfare recipients have moved away from protesting and have increased their efforts to find work.
"I don't want to be in the system anymore," said Fischer. "I just don't want to be dependent on other people to help me. [The budget debate] just reaffirmed the fact that I need to move forward."
Fischer said he's confident that he'll be able to get off welfare this year, but added that he considers himself more fortunate than others. Although he has suffered from severe depression, chemical dependency, and homelessness, he used to live a middle-class existence with a steady job. Nowadays, Fischer said he's sober, healthier, and fortunate to live in a subsidized apartment.
He plans to draw on his previous work experience to start his own consulting business, and was recently awarded a small business grant. Others report having a harder time finding a way out of the welfare system.
Work still difficult to find:
Ja'Na Dickens, a single mother of three, has been trying to find a job in construction for months. She said the job search has taken on added importance because her family would lose their monthly $437 welfare grant under Pawlenty's budget proposal.
Despite Dickens' efforts, she has been unable to find work. Her 3-year-old son Ira is severely disabled, and Dickens said it's been difficult to find an employer willing to work around her son's medical needs.
She said she relies on her faith in God for support, but acknowledged that there are days when she gets overwhelmed by the prospect of losing her welfare grant.
"It's really sad," she said. "I don't understand politics that much. I just understand things here and there. It gets confusing, and it's easy to get scared."
With less than a week in the legislative session, DFL lawmakers and the governor have begun negotiating a plan to fix the state's deficit, but have not yet announced any agreement on welfare spending.
Anti-poverty organizers will rally at the Capitol this week to demand that lawmakers preserve current welfare funding levels. Toran said he plans to attend, but added that he hopes it's his last protest for a while.
"I've been up there at the Capitol too many times to count," he said.