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Pawlenty releases a plan to change state welfare system
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Gov. Pawlenty said the policy changes emphasize "work first" and the idea of personal responsibility. The plan is modeled on Wisconsin's welfare reforms. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
Gov. Pawlenty is proposing stricter work requirements for welfare recipients. Pawlenty's proposal would require welfare recipients to look for a job before they're eligible for cash assistance. He says that would force recipients to become more self-sufficient. Critics say the plan would get people off of welfare rolls, but not out of poverty.

West St. Paul, Minn. — Gov. Pawlenty says his plan would force people applying for welfare assistance to create a work plan before they receive any cash assistance. He says that would force welfare recipients to start looking for work right away.

The plan would also eliminates some current exemptions from job search requirements. The existing Minnesota Family Investment Program currently allows some recipients to be exempt from the program. Pawlenty says there will be exceptions for people who aren't able to work. He says, however, that his goal is to get people working. He called it "the next step of welfare reform."

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Image Human Services Commissioner Kevin Goodno

"If the choice is you have to take a less desirable job more quickly or be on MFIP for four years until you get a little bit better job. I think getting the less desirable job on the front end, demonstrating reliability, demonstrating consistently in you work record and work skills that would help you get that better job is as good if not better than hanging around on MFIP for three years," he said.

Pawlenty says the plan would also have stricter requirements for the definition of work. He says work would mean going to a job and getting a paycheck. The proposal would allow recipients to attend school, but only if they work 25 hours a week.

Human Services Commissioner Kevin Goodno says a recipient would lose all benefits if he or she doesn't follow the program and meet certain standards. The current program cuts benefits by 30 percent when all conditions aren't met.

Goodno also says he will ask the federal government to allow the state to create stricter requirements for food stamps. He says the state wants welfare recipients to use their food stamps on healthy food, not junk food.

"If you're not interested in an employment plan -- in seeking work -- this will be a very tough program for you. If you're interested in only using the MFIP program temporarily as a safety net while you get your feet on the ground and as temporary safety net, then I don't think you're going to see this is a tough program at all," according to Goodno.

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Image The Children's Defense Fund's Minh Ta

The program is modeled after Wisconsin's nationally known welfare program.

Critics argue the the plan wouldn't really help people get out of poverty. Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, was one of the authors of Minnesota's 1996 welfare reform law, and supports the five-year limit on welfare benefits. He says the governor's proposal mirrors Wisconsin's welfare system, which does little to lift people out of poverty.

"The focus is to put people into minimum wage jobs, give them no training so they can move up in the economic ladder, and certainly we know that even in tough times like we have right now, what the economy needs is people with some skills, people that are above minimum wage, that's where the job openings are," he said.

The Children's Defense Fund's Minh Ta says Pawlenty's proposal isn't as severe as he initially feared. He says, however, that he's concerned the nation's struggling economy could create problems for the state's welfare recipients. Ta says Minnesota's welfare reform program is nationally renowned. He says Wisconsin's welfare program was hailed when first enacted, but is now having problems. He's worried that the Minnesota program will change for the worse.

"At first blush, we still have to examine. But there are a number of elements of this proposal that are similar to Wisconsin's. Again if you look at Wisconsin, their welfare caseloads have gone up 52 percent in the last two years since 2000. So we have to really carefully look at what these ramifications are," Ta said.

Pawlenty and Goodno say the changes to the system will be revenue neutral. They say it could produce budget savings over the long term.

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