Minnesota families in need celebrate long-awaited boost in state aid

Toshieka Washington embraces her case worker Carla Pehl in Duluth, Minn.
Toshieka Washington embraces her caseworker Carla Pehl at the Steve O'Neil Apartments in Duluth. Washington was homeless for two years in the Twin Cities with her two sons until she got on the MFIP program. She said the $100 per month increase in MFIP grants will help her get the basic necessities she can't afford now.
Briana Bierschbach | MPR News

Toshieka Washington can easily list off what $100 a month means to her: two rolls of toilet paper instead of just one, laundry detergent, Wi-Fi in her apartment, clothes for her rapidly growing teenage son and colored pencils for her 6-year-old.

"It's kind of hard for him to understand [that] if we have more money, he can have more things," Washington said, taking a break from babysitting her nephew at her apartment in Duluth. "He can have his color pencils with his crayons because he's very, very talented at coloring. It means a lot to him to get more coloring books."

Washington receives help from the Minnesota Family Investment Program, or MFIP, a cash assistance program for low-income families. Through the program, a family of three with no income — just like Washington's — can apply for $532 in grants each month as well as extra money for food assistance. And some families also get $110 to help with housing.

That amount is still below the federal poverty line, but the budget that Minnesota lawmakers approved in May will increase those grants by $100 a month starting in February 2020. It's the first increase in the program since it was first started 33 years ago. The state estimates it will help more than 30,000 families across the state.

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"I know $100 doesn't seem like a lot, but to a single mother like me and other mothers out here, it feels like we hit the lottery," Washington said.

The program dates back to 1986, and the idea behind it was simple: provide help and incentives for families to work and pull themselves out of poverty.

Parents on the program are required to meet with job counselors to help remove barriers to finding work, and most do. Families are gradually phased out of the program as their income goes up and hits a monthly threshold that's over federal poverty guidelines. There's a five-year cap on the assistance for most families.

"People come in, they get assistance, we give them help in job counseling and job searching and preparing for work, and they find work and improve their lives," said state Department of Human Services Commissioner Tony Lourey. "That's the real story behind our assistance programs."

Research conducted before and after the launch of the program showed incentives to work moved more families out of poverty than other programs that were being used. Only 7 percent of people on the program over the past three decades have ever reached the five-year threshold.

But even with the program's demonstrated success, attempts over the years to raise the level of assistance to keep up with inflation repeatedly fell flat.

Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, supported increasing the grants and said he's never heard much opposition from other Republicans. It all came down to finding the money to pay for it.

"When people come looking for more help for something, I say, 'well, your enemies are education funding, environment funding and roads and higher ed.' And none of those are bad, but it's a competition for the dollars," he said. "But every once in a while the planets align just right."

Part of the solution this year restored federal funding that originally was meant to support the program, but had been moved over the years to backfill other assistance programs in the state budget.

And the groups that pushed for the increase over the years never gave up, said Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan. They started a social media campaign this year encouraging activists, commissioners and even lawmakers to post pictures of themselves from 33 years ago, the last time MFIP was increased, to show how much they'd changed.

Flanagan shared a photo of herself as a first grader with short hair, bangs and big gap between her teeth. At the time, her family was using MFIP to get by. She said the increase is long overdue, but it's also not enough. Supporters were pushing for a $200 increase.

"In 1986, it was $532 for a family of three. If you are a nerd like I am and you just plug that into the federal reserve inflation calculator, you see that it should be about $1,216 if it kept up with inflation," she said.

Washington agreed, but she said she's just relieved that lawmakers got something passed this year. She was homeless for two years with her children before she landed in the Steve O'Neil apartment building in Duluth, which is designed to help families dealing with long-term homelessness.

But then she started having seizures, which has made it difficult to hold down a job. She's been relying on the program to help for the past three years while she gets back on track.

She testified at the Capitol this year for the increase. When she heard it passed, she said she burst into tears.

"I was jumping up and down at the same time," she said. "I can't believe it; we really made a difference."