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THREE YEARS AGO, WHEN A NATIONAL overhaul of welfare was still a Republican dream in Washington, Minnesota began its own welfare reform experiment called MFIP. It became the state's model for legal reforms which passed in the State Legislature two years ago. The reforms are intended to cap welfare benefits at five years and move people into jobs.
Now, as those reforms begin kicking in, the next governor will inherit the results of these changes. Because of that, the welfare reform debate remains an election-year issue for candidates.
DFL candidate Mark Dayton's welfare policies include spending more money on welfare reform.
Dayton: If you're going to reduce welfare costs in the long term, you're going to have to increase your welfare spending in the short term.Dayton says as he campaigns across the state, child care comes up as a top concern for many voters. He says more funding is needed to create affordable child care. It's especially critical, he says, for single mothers on welfare to find work.
Dayton: We've to provide both subsidized child care for women who are getting off of welfare and into the workplace, and we need to greatly expand the income eligibility and the amount of the child-care tax credit that we give middle income working families. The proposal right now starts phasing out at $17,000 of family income and is eliminated entirely at $31,000 - I mean, that's just stupid.Dayton says programs need to be expanded to serve parents who work weekends and nights.
He supports more funding for job training and placement services, too, saying if people are to keep their jobs once they get them, they must be able to perform the skills employers seek.
Dayton: Fortunately, we've been able to do that to some extent and we've seen some great results, and businesses have taken on employees and hopefully a lot of that will hold.But Dayton falls short of revealing actual numbers to his spending plans. Like his fellow gubernatorial candidates, he's relying on projected state budget surpluses that make it easy for candidates to make tax cut and spending promises.
But Dayton warns that if the state suffers an economic downturn in the future, and jobs become harder to find, even the best laid plans over welfare reform will begin to cave in. Many people, he says, would be thrust back into a dependency on government assistance.
Dayton: That's where the arbitrariness of the five-year cut-off will hit Minnesota and everywhere else, and I suspect that if we're in that kind of an economic downturn that the state governments will be going to National Governors' Association on a bi-partisan basis to Congress and the President saying, "We have got to add some flexibility to this program or our people are going to be unfairly penalized," and I would be part of that process - certainly.Critics of the so-called workfare rules say there's scant evidence that reforms are accomplishing one of their central goals. Two years since federal and state changes began taking effect, the numbers of people on welfare have dropped. But, critics say, few have been moving into full-time jobs that pay a livable wage. They argue, much of the work is entry level, and there's little indication yet that many people have been able to use their first job as a springboard to a better one.
It's unclear whether between now and the September primary Minnesota voters will take a greater interest in issues of welfare reform. Recent polls indicate that taxes and education rank as top concerns. But candidates, like Mark Dayton, are well versed on the issue - knowing full well that, if they are to lead the next administration, welfare policies will continue to evolve.