On a recent afternoon, Ja'Na Dickens held her three-year-old son on her hip, sliced up a pineapple for her three children, and expressed her determination to lift her family out of poverty.
The 22-year-old mom has a lot to overcome. Her youngest son, Ira, was born with a rare genetic condition, and doctors said he had a year to live.
In the last year, however, Dickens' life began to change. Ira's health improved. He started receiving 24-hour nursing care at the family's Plymouth apartment. Dickens enrolled as a part-time student at North Central University in Minneapolis, with the hopes of getting her bachelor's degree in social work.
But Dickens' plans could run headlong into Gov. Tim Pawlenty's plan for balancing the state's budget. Her family is one of 7,000 households with a disabled family member who would lose hundreds of dollars a month under Pawlenty's budget fix.
"I believe it's definitely going to be difficult if the cuts pass," she said. "I'm going to have to quit school, which is one of my main sources of hope."
“There's nothing you can do that's not going to have a negative impact on families and kids.”Chuck Johnson, Minn. DHS
Under the governor's proposal, many families who receive federal income to support a disabled child or parent would no longer be eligible for a program known as the Minnesota Family Investment Program, or MFIP. If approved, the change would take effect in November.
In Dickens' case, her family receives monthly income from three sources: $437 from MFIP, $519 in Supplemental Security Income, known as SSI, for her disabled son, and $483 in food assistance. That adds up to $1,439--barely enough, she said, to support herself and her three children.
The governor's plan would count her son's SSI as part of the family's income. The change would make Dickens ineligible for her MFIP cash grant, reducing her monthly income by $437. She would be left with just $519 to pay for rent, clothing, tuition, and her son's medical expenses.
"I think it's sad that somebody would even think that to help themselves out of a situation, they step on the backs of people that are already down," she said. "Might as well pile us all up and throw us in a hole somewhere, because ... basically that's where we're going to end up if we are not getting any help when we need it."
Overall, the proposal would eliminate MFIP cash assistance for 7,000 families. Out of that number, 2,000 families would also lose their food assistance, although they might be eligible for other food assistance programs. An additional 700 families would have their MFIP benefits reduced.
The cuts would also impact low-income families' access to childcare subsidies. Over a hundred families a month would lose their subsidy, and an additional 350 families would have their subsidy reduced.
The MFIP cuts amount to $21.5 million of Gov. Pawlenty's plan for closing the state's $1 billion budget gap in the next fiscal year.
A spokesperson for Pawlenty directed questions about the MFIP cuts to the state's Department of Human Services.
Chuck Johnson, the assistant commissioner for Children and Family Services at DHS, acknowledged that the cuts would hurt families struggling with disabilities. But he said the department could not avoid cutting basic assistance programs, given the state's budget deficit.
"It's something of a rock and a hard place to figure out where to look here," Johnson said. "There's nothing you can do that's not going to have a negative impact on families and kids."
Advocates for the poor say they plan to fight the cuts, using many of the same coalitions built during the battle to save the state's low-income health insurance program, called General Assistance Medical Care. That fight ended this month when legislators and the governor reached a compromise to preserve health care access for the state's poorest residents.
"I am just beyond amazed that this would be a cut that the governor would propose," said Monica Nilsson, director of street outreach for St. Stephen's Human Services, and one of the leaders in the fight to save GAMC. "I understand that we have a great budget deficit ... but this is not the place to cut."
Tiffanie Gordon, a disabled mother of three, said her family would likely end up homeless under the governor's proposal.
"We're barely making it as it is with the benefits that we do get," Gordon said. "And if [Pawlenty] was to cut it, I have no idea how we would make it."
Gordon, 25, suffers from depression and anxiety. On a typical day, she said, she wakes up, gets her kids ready for school, and then returns to her bedroom, draws the blinds shut, and lies on her bed until her children get home.
Gordon said she would no longer be able to afford her $695 a month basement apartment in St. Paul. She said she would consider moving to Wisconsin to stay with relatives, but worries that the change would disrupt her family.
"I don't feel like [my children] should have to switch their schools," she said, "or me try to find a whole other psychiatrist down there, try to get them in school, find them new doctors, and dentists, and all that, just because somebody wants to cut a program without investigating and seeing from our point of view of the situation."
Legal advocates for the poor say that the changes could violate federal law. They argue that Congress set up the SSI program to cover the expenses of a disabled parent or child--not pay for the expenses of an entire family.
Kathleen Davis, an attorney with the Minneapolis Legal Aid Society, outlined several legal objections at a House committee meeting last week.
She cited a federal district court case in West Virginia where an injunction stopped a similar policy change in 1999. The court noted that the purpose of the SSI program is to assist families with expenses made necessary by a child's disability.
For Ja'Na Dickens, those additional expenses total about $270 a month. She has a separate bathroom and bedroom for her son Ira, and pays for medications and physical therapy that her insurance does not cover.
"I didn't choose for him to be born the way he was born," Dickens said. "I chose to have a child, in the hopes that he would be born normal, and that I would pursue a job, but he wasn't. And unfortunately, it put me in a situation where I couldn't look for work. I had to take care of him."
Advocates for the poor also argue that, despite the budget deficit, the state has enough money to fully fund its welfare programs. Under the governor's proposal, the state would use federal money for needy families to help balance the state's budget deficit.
At the state Capitol, the proposal faces an uncertain future. Lawmakers have not yet conducted an in-depth review of the proposed changes.
DFL Rep. Thomas Huntley, who chairs the Health Care and Human Services Finance Division, said he strongly opposes the cuts.
"We like [disabled children] to stay at home," Huntley said. "We like them not to be in an institution, but there's no way the family could provide what that kid needs in terms of special services and also try to feed the family out of that money."
On the Republican side, Rep. Jim Abeler, the vice chair for the Health Care and Human Services Finance Division, said he hopes the legislature can find a way to avoid the cuts.
Abeler said he ranks individual programs as "essential, important, or nice." He considers the MFIP program for families with disabilities to be "probably at least important," but he cautions that Pawlenty might be able to cut funding if legislators cannot balance the budget.