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THE NEXT GOVERNOR WILL LIKELY be held accountable for the outcome of massive welfare changes in Minnesota. In January the state began enrolling recipients in the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) following on federal welfare changes. The clock began ticking for those welfare recipients, who must find work and face a lifetime benefit limit of five years. Recipients also face sanctions if they don't attend orientation and job counseling meetings. The state also implemented support services, like job banks and tax breaks for employers who hired MFIP recipients. Doug Johnson says he supported the welfare overhaul.
Johnson: I think one of the best things Minnesota and the federal government ever did was have welfare reform. I think for a lot of Americans this has provided incentive to get advanced educational courses, training, and get-up-and-go to work in the morning. That's very healthy for people.So far the state has judged the program a success. In March, the latest date for which figures are available, about one-quarter of welfare recipients were working. The monthly average of families on welfare dropped 23 percent over the last four years, to 49,000. But critics and caseworkers say people who dropped off the rolls first were the best-qualified to go to work and predict tougher going for remaining welfare recipients. In addition the booming economy was a big help for job-seekers. Johnson says he wants to give the changes time to play out, but as governor he would make some improvements.
Johnson: The one thing I want to fully fund is a sliding fee childcare program for working mothers, and I'm going to have initiatives in housing for affordable housing. And in Minnesota there's been a nonexistent transportation policy for eight years, and for people to come off welfare they have to have affordable transportation as well. The whole idea of reform, I think, it was the right thing to do.Johnson says an economic downturn will make things more difficult, but that's no excuse to stop now. He says such a downturn, even when combined with his budget proposals like a spending freeze and tax cuts, wouldn't jeopardize the safety net for the state's poorest residents.
Johnson: There is about a billion dollars in reserve including $350 million in a cash-flow account, and I'm not touching that in any of my budget proposals. We do have that rainy day fund available that we didn't have in past years.Johnson estimates he would invest about $50 million over the biennium to assist welfare recipients. But he says it's premature to worry about people hitting the five-year cutoff of benefits.
Johnson: I'm not ready to backtrack in any way. I think some might use it as an excuse not to develop the training skills they need to support themselves and their families; I'd rather focus on making sure we have affordable child care, housing, and transportation and not in any way weaken the welfare reform laws. I think they were long overdue and are doing a lot of good in our economy.Everyone agrees the welfare changes occurred at a good time economically, with unemployment at an all-time low. The picture is likely to get more complicated over time. Caseworkers say some families are on income roller-coasters because counties base assistance on what they were earning two months ago. And private grants - like the $15 million distributed by the McKnight Foundation to create welfare reform partnerships - can leave new programs stranded when they expire. But with welfare changes in their infancy, Johnson wants to let some time pass before he'll consider reforming the reforms.