Tackling Welfare’s Racial Gap

Frederick Melo, Pioneer Press (St. Paul), Jan. 21, 2007

Sixteen counties across Minnesota have resolved to get more black and American Indian families off state welfare this year.

It’s a goal that may sound surprisingly blunt, but public agencies call it staggering in its complexity. Not only are black and American Indian families hugely overrepresented on welfare rolls, but recent studies show those groups, overall, also remain on public assistance longer than whites, Asians, Hispanics and Somali immigrants.

In suburban counties, officials say the growing number of low-income minorities migrating from urban areas has added a sensitive racial dimension to an old challenge of meeting the needs of the poor.

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The U.S. Deficit Reduction Act signed into law last year requires that states get half of family-welfare recipients involved in jobs or job-related programs for at least 30 hours a week or they risk losing a share of federal help. Currently, about a third of Minnesota’s welfare families meet that goal.

To calculate progress, the law no longer provides states with credit for families that have moved off welfare entirely.

If Minnesota’s numbers don’t improve by 2009, the state could lose $13.5 million of the $267 million it receives from the federal government each year to help poor families make ends meet.

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That’s left Minnesota’s counties—which administer the state’s public assistance programs—under pressure to get more welfare recipients into steady jobs. In the suburbs, officials are suddenly finding that task intimately tied to race.

Race, Poverty Dilemma

To human-services officials, race and poverty are strongly linked but hardly inseparable. Yet simple answers on how to pull them apart aren’t so obvious.

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But in metro-area suburbs such as those in Dakota County, the number of recipients is growing faster than the population. Public assistance cases in the county—food support, medical help and public welfare for families and singles—grew by 69 percent from 2000 to 2005, while MFIP cases rose from 1,200 to 1,500, an increase of 25 percent.

During that time, the county’s population grew about 6 percent, according to the U.S. census.

And while African-Americans still make up a slim 3.9 percent of the Dakota County population, they make up 38 percent of the county’s families on MFIP. About a fourth of the county’s black population lives in poverty.

From 2000 to 2005, the county’s black population nearly doubled from 8,100 residents to 15,000, according to the U.S. census.

American Indians make up less than half of 1 percent of the county’s residents, but 3 percent of the county’s MFIP recipients.

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The state Human Services Department has been working for nearly two years to figure out why those welfare disparities exist for black and American Indian families—and to find ways to close the gap.

The effort, dubbed the “Taking Action on Disparities” project, has roped public assistance directors from 16 counties into hashing out formal action plans.

Some counties, like Olmsted and Dakota, have flung themselves into the disparities project, said Sam Grant, a community organizer hired by the Human Services Department to facilitate the planning. Others appear more reluctant, citing a lack of time, money and resources.

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The question Krueger asks everyone to tackle is straightforward on its face: “How do we help low-income people become more successful in Dakota County, particularly minorities?”

But wrapped in are nuances that have confounded the country’s best minds: Why do some minorities make financial inroads while others flail? Is the minority gap due to a self-defeating “culture of poverty,” or is it linked to legacies of slavery, racism and disenfranchisement?

“There is not a simple, linear answer to that question,” said Grant, who teaches courses on community economic development at Metropolitan State University.

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Meanwhile, the disproportionate number of ethnic minorities on welfare tells only half the story. In Dakota and 15 other counties across the state, black and American Indian families remained on MFIP longer than all other ethnic groups surveyed, according to a three-year study released in September by the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

Statewide, 71 percent of the general population was off family welfare or working at least 30 hours per week after three years, compared with 58 percent of blacks and 58 percent of American Indians.

That gap was especially evident for blacks in Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, Olmsted, Ramsey, Scott and Washington counties, the study showed.

Even members of recent immigrant groups, such as Hmong and Somalis, consistently got off family assistance more quickly than African-Americans and American Indians—and in some counties, whites.

A Statewide Push

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The state and federal government are “trying to fix this thing from afar, issuing regulations that have no rhyme or reason in the reality of poverty,” said John Poupart, president of the American Indian Policy Center in St. Paul.

“Seventy percent of the Indian kids in St. Paul are on free lunch, and we have disproportionate issues with health,” he said. “We have high infant mortality rates, high suicide rates. Teens are getting type 2 diabetes. It’s a war zone out here. They’re surrounded by” people just simply trying to staying alive.

According to Krueger, financial workers and employment counselors in Dakota County juggle between 70 and 100 MFIP cases each. “On a daily basis, we think each worker probably interacts with 20 people, either in person or on the phone,” Krueger said.

Small Steps

Ramsey County has contracted five caseworkers from the Cultural Wellness Center in Minneapolis to fan out across Dayton’s Bluff, a St. Paul neighborhood with a high concentration of welfare recipients, to offer family counseling and other services.

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