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Duluth's Hmong Families Find Reform Pressure
By Amy Radil
October 15, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4
Part of the MPR Welfare to Work Series

DULUTH'S SMALL HMONG COMMUNITY has been steadily growing over the past ten years. Late last year there were about 175 Hmong households in Duluth on the welfare rolls. But then Minnesota moved in to welfare reform and as they themselves admit, St. Louis County and the City of Duluth Job Training forgot the city's immigrants.

Bea Larson: There was a lot of initial panic and fear and initial orientation sessions had to be redone.

Bea Larson, is an instructor at the Adult Learning Center who teaches English as a second language classes. She soon learned the county had not only sent out letters informing Hmong recipents of the changes in English alone... it was also conducting required orientation sessions exclusively in English.

Larson: Initially people were asked to sign jobs plans that they didn't understand. A number of different folks with limited English had to be re-oriented in ways that they'd understand what they were agreeing to do.

Larson contacted Gwen Updegraaf, a legal aid attorney, who met with a group of Hmong welfare recipients who told her of further problems. The Minnesota Family Investment Program, or MFIP, legislation calls for participants to receive an individualized assessment with a job counselor, who helps them formulate a plan consisting of education, training or active job seeking. Updegraaf says instead, these people had pre-printed job forms instructing them to perform 30 hours of job search each week.

Updegraaf: There was no individualized assessment done with these people, no one sat down with them and determined how much English they spoke. Several people who had problems with their plans complained of disabilities.

Amidst the confusion, Hmong families began leaving Duluth for the Twin Cities. Reasons varied. Some wanted to join relatives, some wanted access to support services in their own language, and many found ready employment and higher wages. When Updegraaf contacted St. Louis County officials with her concerns, they agreed to allow Hmong immigrants to start over in the orientation process, this time with an interpreter, Bobbee Vang. Vang was hired with a grant from the McKnight Foundation to provide special support for Southeast Asians seeking jobs in Duluth.

Vang: I'm always onthe phone talking to employers, I thought of myself as being my own human resources department for southeast Asian people, who are my clients.

On a weekday afternoon, Vang checks up on a new employee he helped place at Arrow Stitch in west Duluth. Fans blow cool air on the rows of workers busily stitching motorcycle gear. Business is good. Company controller Kate Hadyn greets Vang enthusiastically and tells him she'll hire as many employees as he can send her way. Hadyn says Arrow Stitch became involved with Vang's program after a meeting called by the United Way to try to stop the exodus of Hmong immigrants, and to reassure them that jobs did exist.

Haydn: We went because we have 4 - 5 Hmong employees who were doing a very good job for us and we were in need of looking for more employees in general, so we went to say yes, they show up every day, they've done a great job for us, and we'd be willing to hire as many as are interested in trying out sewing.

Vang says 25 of the original 175 families remain in Duluth. Vang and other social service advocates say Duluth employers have gone out of their way to offer jobs to immigrants. Still, Vang says the pool of Hmong immigrants seeking his help is steadily shrinking as higher wages lure them away. Youa Tong Xiong, the new employee at Arrow Stitch, says he likes his job but at $5.45 an hour, it comes nowhere near supporting his wife and nine children.

Xiong [translated by Vang]: When he's starting entry level he's getting low pay, so it would not cover the expense of his family. [translated]

Xiong says welfare reform has had a big effect on his family. His wife is enrolled in a work readiness program and ESL classes, so scheduling is difficult.

Xiong [translated by Vang]: He doesn't have that many people who are closely related to him in this town so when it comes to them both being busy, they need somebody to be there and it's always going to have to be him or his wife because of such a large household. [translated]

Many Southeast Asian parents are reluctant to place their children in commercial daycare, even though it is funded under MFIP. Yee Moua lives with her husband and children in Harborview Apartments, a public housing complex home to several Hmong families. Moua says she's anxious to get a job, but it has to wait until her youngest son, Brandon, is in school full-time.

Moua: I really want to go to work now but my son only goes to school for half the day. I don't trust anyone to leave my son for, you know, 3 - 4 hours. I really want to go to work now....

Moua says she and her husband like Duluth, but they're considering a move to the Twin Cities as are most of their neighbors. Moua says welfare reform isn't really a problem for her generation - they look forward to working and always had the expectation they would. But she says it's been devastating for her parents, now in their 50's, who recently arrived in the U.S.

Moua: They have no English at all, now they want them to go to work and it's totally different... it made my parents very upset... it's difficult to live in the U.S. When you live in your country, you did not depend on anybody, but things are different....

McKnight is also funding a class for immigrants who are not yet ready for the job market. Some of the adults in the class resemble Moua's description of her parents - they are in their 40's and 50's, speak very little English, and seem alternately bemused and baffled by the job counselor's questions.

Counselor: How about driving, can you drive a car?

Woman: [laughing] I don't know how to drive....

While it may not seem that out of the ordinary, this class is unique under MFIP. Vang's program has been allowed to become the go-between for the immigrants they work with in dealing with the employment office and St. Louis County - essentially they've placed Duluth's Southeast Asian immigrants in a more sheltering system while channeling them into jobs when they're ready. So far Vang has placed about 11 people. His supervisor, Claudia Maki, holds out hope that some of the Hmong families who left will eventually return, perhaps for the schools or a lower cost of living.

Maki: I think people may end up returning. Right now it just made sense for them to go. I think now having had some months of knowing there is support here if they want to return, we may have been a little slow in getting some of that out to ease the confusion adn worries with families that left, I don't think that was anybody's fault, but I think the word is out.

The influx in the Twin Cities isn't only from outstate Minnesota. The State Department of Human Services estimates about 15,000 Hmong refugees have moved to the Twin Cities from California in the months since welfare reform passed. The're coming for jobs, not welfare, which makes the numbers harder to track. Of course, social service agencies likely view someone moving from welfare in Duluth to a job in St. Paul as a success story. ESL instructor Bea Larson says with a Hmong woman she came to know, the reality was a little more complex.

Larson: Moving to the Cities, she and her husband will be working full-time, they'll live in a predominantly Hmong neighborhood, and so she'll go back to the old culture more than she'll be immersed more with mainstream American culture. And she's done so well in our culture, made so many friends, she left with a broken heart, but she needed to go. I don't know how you call that.

Those who have chosen to stay in Duluth say it's a safer place than the Twin Cities for their children to live and go to school. But it will be a struggle for immigrants with larger families to make wages that allow them to escape poverty by the time the welfare clock runs out in 2002.