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What happened to families who left welfare system?
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The "head to toe" supply room at People Serving People, a facility that provides emergency shelter, supplies and services for families with children. Director Mary Crowley says she hasn't seen an increase in clients since the welfare cutoffs began last year. (MPR Photo/Brandt Williams)
State officials say they don't know how more than 1,000 families are faring after being dropped from the Minnesota welfare system last July. The families reached their five-year limit on cash benefits and didn't qualify for extensions. Anti-poverty activists and social service providers say they don't have hard data either. But they believe the cutoffs are a major setback for those families. They also say they're worried that the state's sagging economy, and new proposed welfare benefits changes, will make it even harder for people get out of poverty.

St. Paul, Minn. — Darnella Wade is one of the 1,000 cases dropped from the system since last July. About 44,000 families remain enrolled in the Minnesota Family Investment Program. Wade reached the end of her five-year limit on MFIP cash benefits last November. She could have gotten an extension, because she was in a work program. However, she was sanctioned within the last year of her eligibility, after she quit an earlier job without consulting her caseworker.

"I was working full-time, 40 hours a week. And after the pressure, the amount of pressure from PHA and being a single parent and a full-time job, I just kind of let go of the job," says Wade.

I think there are a lot of families and children existing in very poor circumstances.
- Jan Mueller, MFIP administrator in Ramsey County

MFIP rules state that a person in sanction at the end of their five years is automatically disqualified from an extension. But Wade says her caseworker never told her that. She says she quit the job because it interfered with her ability to comply with rules attached to her public housing.

Wade says her apartment was being inspected once a month and she says her employer didn't understand her need for time off to prepare.

"No one wants to look at the four years I did work," she says. "Just the one day I quit."

Wade, 29, lives in the Mount Airy Public Housing complex in St. Paul with her four kids. She says she wants to work, and wants eventually to go to school to study interior design.

But she says the system focuses too narrowly on getting people into low wage jobs, which she says just keeps them in poverty. And Wade says the system makes it harder for MFIP recipients when they get a job.

Wade says when she was employed at $7 an hour, the state reduced her monthly $697 cash grant by a few hundred dollars, and her rent would increase by a few hundred. Now she pays no rent because she has no income.

"The subsidy with rent doesn't mean there's a subsidy for gas, electric, heat and hot water, telephone - I wouldn't even dare put cable in here because that's above and beyond," says Wade.

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Image Human Services Commissioner Kevin Goodno

Wade's family receives more than $500 in food stamps each month, which she says is enough to feed them. And Wade and her kids are on Medical Assistance. However, she says her bills are about $500 per month, and Wade fears that if she doesn't get a job by April, she will not be able to pay her utility bills. She says in April her utilities can be shut off. And if that happens, Wade says she will be in violation of public housing rules and can be evicted.

"There's different reasons why people fell off the system," says Human Services Commissioner Kevin Goodno. "Quite frankly, it involves choice -- in their choice either not to comply with the program requirements, or their choice not to try to be involved in the process of getting exempt."

Goodno says the majority of people who reached their time limit received extensions. Families who didn't receive an extension are still eligible for food stamps and Medical Assistance, but have to reapply for them. Public housing is also still available.

Goodno says nobody knows how these families have fared since their cash benefits were dropped -- or why they left. He says the state is conducting a followup study which should be done in a few months. But right now, Goodno says they have no evidence to show that large numbers of families have fallen through the safety net.

"I think there are a lot of families and children existing in very poor circumstances," says Jan Mueller, director of Lifetrack Resources, the largest MFIP provider in Ramsey County.

Mueller doesn't have statistics on how the families are doing either. But she believes they are probably making just enough money to stay off the system, but not enough to prosper. And Mueller says that's especially rough on children.

"I can imagine that their parents are probably working very low-end jobs," Mueller says. "Maybe the $6 an hour variety, maybe not fully full-time jobs, and probably without any benefits. So the children don't have access to health care, and not good nutrition and not good childhood screening programs."

Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Commissioner Goodno have proposed what they call aggressive reforms for the state's welfare programs that stress work and personal responsibility. The proposed changes are based on the Wisconsin welfare system, which has a fraction of the aid recipients that MFIP does.

But critics of the Wisconsin plan say that system has forced more people to use emergency food shelves and homeless shelters.

On a recent day at the Dorothy Day Center, which provides food and shelter for the homeless and low income people in St. Paul, staff are getting ready to serve lunch. More than 100 homeless men and women are sitting around small tables, in a room half the size of a high school gymnasium.

Lucia Wittman is the direct services coordinator for the center. She can see what goes on in the large room from her enclosed office.

"Definitely, {in the} colder months everybody comes in," says Wittman. "And at the end of the month, because cash grants and food stamps have run out."

Wittman says the center was expecting a large increase in the number of clients after people began having their benefits cut off. She says the impact has been smaller than they expected. However, Wittman says food shelf usage has increased since last July. But she doesn't know if the increase is directly related to the MFIP cutoffs.

"A lot of our clients are employed. And it's a matter of if your paycheck is just covering your rent and you can buy some of your food, or if you were on MFIP and you now have a job so you're no longer getting cash grants, but you're still getting your food stamps," says Wittman. "We've done some research here in the direct services division, which shows how difficult for a family of six to survive on the amount of money they're given."

Darnella Wade, the unemployed mother of four in St. Paul, says she's been homeless before and says she'll do whatever she can to make sure that doesn't happen again. But she says time is running out.

"By the time April comes, I have to have a job," says Wade. "And it doesn't matter if its a $7 or a $5 an hour job. I have to have it."

While she looks for work, Wade plans to appeal her sanction, to try to get her benefits back.

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