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Citizens' Forum: Welfare and Poverty
By Brent Wolfe
June 15, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

Part of the Citizens' Forum series

The last of a series of Citizens' Forums organized by Minnesota Public Radio, the Star Tribune, KTCA-TV, and the Minnesota Journalism Center developed questions about poverty and welfare to ask the gubernatorial candidates. The citizens want to know how each candidate would improve education, childcare, and transportation options for those in poverty. However, their discussion shows their attitudes towards those using welfare vary widely.

THE FORUM LINKED CITIZENS at conference sites in St. Paul, Rochester, Crookston, and at Lucille's Kitchen in north Minneapolis. The goal of the program is to formulate questions the media will ask candidates during the gubernatorial campaign. Emmett Carson, president of the Minneapolis Foundation, asked participants to think about what kind of a welfare system they'd like to have in place if they found themselves in poverty. He stressed that most people in poverty don't want welfare and want to work. With that in mind, citizens considered what tools people need to get and hold a job. Elmer Nelson of Minneapolis says a good education is the most important way to acquire job skills.

Carson: My parents were immigrants from Sweden with an eighth grade education. I was able to graduate from Northwestern University because of the GI bill. Was it expensive? Yes. Did it pay off? All three of my sons are Ph.D.s. So I think government investment in graduate school or college education is extremely valuable and a good investment on the part of the government.
Citizens also wanted to know if candidates think government or schools can teach people so-called "soft job skills," like showing up for work on time and getting along with co-workers. They recognized that skills aren't the only barrier to climbing out of poverty and wanted to know how the next governor will improve transportation and increase the supply of affordable housing. Wayne Brooks of Stewartville wanted to know how the state can help single parents.
Brooks: We value childcare as a factor in alleviating poverty. Do you have a specific program to: One, improve quality - this all refers to childcare - to improve quality; [two,] to improve availability; three, to improve child care workers' salaries?
Several citizens wanted to know how the candidates propose to reduce the role of government in the welfare system. Sue Bateman of Rochester remembered when Asian-American immigrants arrived in Rochester, and churches took it upon themselves to help them find jobs and homes.
Bateman: My concern is getting people involved personally. Not just on a mentor sort of basis, but a whole community working together, may be two or three families working with one family, maybe under the direction of somebody who has information about the family to give them ideas of how to go about it, but I think everybody has to be involved.
As the discussion continued, some of the participants' underlying assumptions about poverty and welfare began to bubble up. Jerry Macabee with the mostly black group at Lucille's in north Minneapolis was offended when one of the panelists talked about a culture that leads to poverty.
Macabee: It never ceases to amaze me that every time we talk about poverty, although the numbers bear out, especially when it comes to race, who's on poverty most of the time. But yet whenever the question is answered, or raised, or we comment on it, we always put it on a black context. I don't understand that.
He berated the panelist, and citizens at the other sites were taken aback.

After the video link was cut and citizens at each site started talking among themselves, the discussion at the Rochester site began to mirror the welfare debate in the legislature last year where welfare and racial issues were intertwined. One Rochester participant suggested the citizens at Lucille's would consider the ability to buy a pair of Nikes part of a living wage.

Bob Marnocha of Plainview said it was becoming clear to him that people were talking about different things when they used the word welfare. He asked people for their definitions of welfare and they ranged from "temporary help up" to "something for nothing." His own definition was more visceral.
Marnocha: It is protection money that we pay so poor people don't take to the street to take away from what we have. It happened in the 60s, they took to the streets, they were hungry, you know what hungry people will do to a government, and/or a society. It's protection money that you and I pay to keep what we have. That's what my definition of what welfare is.
Forum organizers will now compile all the questions on welfare and poverty as well as education, funding of sports facilities, taxes, and crime into a booklet. Citizens will then use the booklets to question the candidates directly at another forum scheduled for July.