Welfare program for poor eliminated in proposed budget planby Madeleine Baran, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — A welfare program for disabled adults was eliminated in the Health and Human Services conference committee late Thursday night.
The text version of the proposal has not been released, but the spreadsheet from Thursday's committee included the elimination of the General Assistance program, which provides up to $203 a month for 20,000 disabled adults without children. The proposal still needs to pass the legislature and be signed by Gov. Mark Dayton before it becomes law.
Read a brief history of Minnesota's General Assistance program.
Many people receiving General Assistance are homeless and awaiting approval for Social Security benefits. The program is their only source of income other than food support. Recipients depend on the program to pay for medication co-payments, bus fare, and basic items like toothpaste and soap.
"You're talking about a part of our population that probably is never going to make it, and they're never going to get back to work because of their illnesses and their other problems," said Rep. Thomas Huntley, DFL-Duluth, who sits on the conference committee and opposed the measure. "And the question is do we want to let them die in the street or do we want to feel that we have a responsibility to take care of them."
General Assistance was one of many programs cut by the conference committee. The committee also eliminated Medical Assistance for adults without children, cut mental health grants, and reduced the monthly welfare payments for families with a disabled parent. Republican lawmakers have said deep cuts to the state's health and human services budget are needed to fix the projected $5 billion budget deficit.
Advocates for the homeless said they received warning that the General Assistance program could be cut on Wednesday and have been scrambling to respond since then.
"It's morally unsupportable," said Brian Rusche, the executive director of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition. "It's a violation of our commitment to one another as human beings not to put people in desperate circumstances."
Thaddeus Tyler is among those who plan to protest the cuts. Tyler, 53, lives in transitional housing in Minneapolis and has been receiving General Assistance for five months while he applies for Social Security. Tyler became disabled after he was severely beaten with a shovel. He now has difficulty speaking and relies on a walker to get around.
He said if he lost his monthly stipend, he wouldn't be able to afford the co-payments on his medications. "I just don't know what I'll do with no funds or nothing coming in," he said. "I can't hardly walk. Nobody ain't going to hire me."
A COST-SAVING MEASURE
The elimination of General Assistance saves $38 million in the 2012-2013 fiscal years and $102 million in 2014-2015. Two programs that provide emergency assistance to disabled adults to help pay for medically prescribed diets and other needs would also be eliminated, according to the committee's spreadsheet. The savings from those programs total nearly $10.4 million in the next two years and $13.5 million in 2014-2015.
The committee replaced the General Assistance program with a new Adult Assistance program that advocates said provides block grants to counties, but does not require that the money be spent on monthly stipends for the poor. The spreadsheet includes $33.5 million for the new program in 2012-2013 and $89.2 million in 2014-2015.
Advocates for the homeless said they had assumed that the program would be protected based on conversations with lawmakers in recent weeks. Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, who chairs the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee, had included $104 million in funding for General Assistance and two emergency assistance programs in the House version of the Health and Human Services budget. However, the Senate version eliminated all three programs and replaced them with $89 million in block grants to counties.
"We were holding out hope that the House side would win on this," said Patrick Ness, policy director for the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, on Wednesday. "But it very much felt like this program is slipping through our fingers in the last 24 hours."
Republican members of the committee did not return calls for comment. "Rep. Abeler is doing his best," Ness said. "I think this is difficult on him. I believe he cares, and we're asking him to step up and do the right thing."
ADVOCATES CRITICAL OF BLOCK GRANT PLAN
Social service agencies said replacing the program with block grants would make it difficult to provide consistent services to low-income adults. One county could decide to use the funds for one-time emergency help, while another might continue to provide the $203 monthly stipend, said Cathy Heying, an organizer with St. Stephen's Human Services in Minneapolis.
"An inconsistency in services is bound to happen," she said. "If Hennepin County decides we're going to keep providing $203 a month and Ramsey County says we're going to do $50 a month, then presumably there will be an influx of people moving from one county to another."
She added, "I think it's fair to assume that many people will get less than what they're currently getting."
The Department of Human Services has also raised concerns about the Senate plan. In a letter sent to Abeler and Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, DHS Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said the block grant program "will significantly reduce the number of people who can be served, resulting in increased homelessness for those unable to access assistance."
Organizers said they plan to mount a public campaign to raise awareness of the cuts, but will be relying on the governor to make sure the program isn't eliminated.
"I think the governor has taken a firm stance on draconian cuts like this and that he is not willing to pass a budget that will decimate peoples' lives," Ness said. "These cuts would fall into that category."
The DFL governor's budget includes funding for General Assistance and other emergency assistance programs. Dayton has proposed raising taxes on the wealthiest Minnesotans to help balance the budget, but Republicans have opposed the tax increases, arguing that the tax hike would hurt the economy.
Dayton spokeswoman Katie Tinucci said the governor is waiting for the Republican-controlled Legislature to produce a final budget.
"The governor hasn't promised to veto anything," she said. "He's been very careful to not promise any vetoes. What he's said over and over is that he wants to see the entire budget in context to see how everything fits together."