we're all responsible for poverty

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Welfare is supposed to be a bridge from poverty to self-sufficiency, but Minnesota’s system is bogged down in bureaucracy, inefficiency, and anachronistic sexism.

Submitted: April 26, 2016

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Submitted: April 26, 2016

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(MINNEAPOLIS) - After 60 months of receiving cash welfare benefits from the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP), Darnella Wade hit the program’s time limit in 2001. She would still receive food stamps and housing assistance, but without the cash grant she could not pay for other necessities like gasoline and utilities. She went to work at White Castle for minimum wage, earning a little more than $7 an hour to provide for her four children.

“When the feds change the student loan interest rates, or the price of gas goes up two or three cents on the weekend versus the weekday,” Wade said, “getting a full tank of gas and a gallon of milk - I can’t do one of those now.”

So long as she had been on MFIP, Wade was able to live rent-free in St. Paul public housing. Now that she had an income, her rent went up, and the amount of food stamps she was receiving went down.

She soon worked her way to a manager position, but had to work more than 50 hours some weeks to make up the difference.

“I never got the chance to be the mom. I had to be the employee,” she said. She was making $30,000 a year, but was rarely at home, “I remember coming home one day, and my kid was walking.”

In December 2013, 28,664 adults received cash assistance, according to a report provided by Minnesota State Rep. Susan Allen (D-Minneapolis). About 81 percent of those eligible for MFIP are women, and only 20 percent of cases involve two caregivers, according to the report.

“We’ve found a lot of attacks against welfare - more cuts, and more punitive measures like drug testing or new sanctions,” Kim DeFranco said. In 1992, DeFranco helped start the Welfare Rights Committee, which helps welfare recipients lobby their legislators. Their membership is primarily single mothers like Wade.

Sanctions, DeFranco explained, are a system for ensuring compliance with MFIP rules. If recipients miss an appointment with a social worker, improperly track their time searching for work, or even fall behind on child support, their cash benefits can be reduced by as much as 30 percent.

Some rule suggestions have been outright bizarre. “There was one bill that would have forced women to go to etiquette classes and dating classes,” DeFranco said.

Meddling in a recipient’s love life is justified because the federal block grant that funds MFIP has four stated purposes, according to the task force report, and three of them involve promoting marriage.

Wade knows first hand how ineffective marriage can be at breaking the poverty cycle.

The father of Wade’s first child was killed by a stray bullet during a shoot-out in 1991.”Wrong place, wrong time, I guess,” Wade said.

She decided to “do it right” the next time, and got married. Her next three children shared a father who turned abusive.

Wade said she knows of women who sleep with their landlords to avoid becoming homeless. Others, she said, stay with abusers, “There’s a woman somewhere in the corner crying with food stamps. Because you can still get food stamps after you lose MFIP.”

About the time Wade lost her cash benefits, Angel Buechner-Smith lost her job. Like Wade, she had four children. “I had four small boys, but I didn’t have nowhere to go,” she said.

She tried to go on MFIP, but it too onerous. “The rules were just crazy… It was mind-fuckery,” she said.

One of her sons was on disability, and she found she could live on that, so she went off MFIP. Eventually, she was able to find part-time work as a receptionist. She searched for something more stable, but with four boys it was difficult to find time to look.

She couldn’t afford childcare, and her support network was weak. “My stepfather was dying and my mother was taking care of him, and my grandmother was getting older,” she said. Besides, they all lived in St. Paul and the only home she could afford was in Minneapolis.

It was a rougher area than she had come from, and she worried about her boys becoming involved in crime, drugs, or violence. “They didn’t care if my kids became victims of the street as long as I wasn’t getting welfare no more,” she said.

Loretta Vanpelt was raised with a staunchly middle class outlook. “I had all these stereotypes of women being lazy while I’m watching my parents work their butts off,” she said.

“My dad worked at a railroad company in a managerial position,” Vanpelt said. “I grew up with the notion that if I made good grades in high school and went to college, I would get a good job and I wouldn’t be dependent on the system.”

She graduated with a degree in English from St. Catherine University in 2003, and moved to Atlanta, Ga. For several years, she did activist work between shifts at a chicken processing plant. Then, she began what she thought was a loving, committed relationship.

When she became pregnant with twins in 2009, she discovered that their father had lied to her. He had gotten another woman pregnant and was a sex offender. As the Great Recession deepened, she lost her job and moved back to Minnesota to be with her family and look for work.

“It made me learn that having a degree wasn’t a protection from poverty,” she said.

Before applying for welfare, Vanpelt tried finding work but she was more than seven months pregnant. She applied for welfare and was told that she would have to work because the children were not yet present.

After her twins were born, she found a temp job working at Wells Fargo, but was let go after 18 months because the bank was unwilling to bring her on as a regular employee.

When she lost this job, she went on MFIP. She could easily spent ten hours a week applying for jobs on the internet, but fell short of the 35 hours required to avoid being sanctioned.

“I had a really nice case manager... she didn’t want to sanction me, so she gave me a warning.” Vanpelt said that her case worker taught her how to pad her time log to reach 35 hours a week.

Today, Vanpelt works full time for the Minneapolis School District in a special ed classroom. Despite having a college degree and earning $17 an hour, she is still dependent on childcare assistance and, during the summer, food stamps.

“I learned it’s all walks of life who have to do this,” Vanpelt said. “It’s the woman with two children and a college degree who has to do this. It’s the mother with five children.”

Wade now works full-time caring for disabled adults. Like Vanpelt, she depends on several forms of welfare to survive and care for her children, the youngest of whom is 18. Like Buechner-Smith, Wade is worried about her children falling into a lifestyle of drugs or violence.

“These 5-, 6-, 7-year-olds are in poverty too long, and when it’s their turn to make money they don’t go to White Castle, they don’t go to Walmart. They go to the alleys,” Wade said.

In December, Wade’s 20 year-old son was shot by a 17 year-old acquaintance during a drug deal. His condition was serious enough that the case was assigned to homicide detectives, Wade said. He survived, but Wade expects him to be handicapped for life.

Wade doesn’t blame the boy who shot her son for the crime, his family might have had less than her’s. Rather, she blames the system. “How many ways could this life, that we already know is prevalent, be the reason why my son got shot,” she said. “There’s so many kids that’s kicked off welfare. Those are the kids creating crime. You’ve left them behind too long.”

Part of the problem, Allen said, is that the cash grants have not been increased since 1986. She said that the governor’s new budget increases MFIP benefits by $100 a month, but that they need to be doubled.

Allen explained another problem. MFIP is funded from a $43 million block grant from the federal government, and $23 million of the grant goes not to traditional welfare but to the Working Family Tax Credit.

Allen said that there is a bill before both houses of the Minnesota legislature which would fund the tax credit from the general fund, freeing up money for MFIP and other traditional welfare programs. She is not sure that the bill will pass the House.

All three women - Wade, Buechner-Smith, and Vanpelt - are members of the Welfare Rights Committee. They have each told their stories to members of congress multiple times and helped to draft bills. Each is skeptical about their representatives’ commitment.

“They’re there to protect themselves and the rich. The system isn’t build to help poor people,” said Buechner-Smith. “If they had their way they would absolutely get rid of welfare.”

Wade echos this sentiment, “I’m mad that they allow poverty too long, they allow poverty too long. Every household is going to look like mine in a minute.”


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