No such thing as a ‘free lunch’

Mille Lacs County Times

During this time of tough budget decisions, a lot of the discussion around the congressional committee table — and the coffee shop booth — has been focused on slashing funding for all those “free government give-away” programs.

At least that was the sentiment that has Mille Lacs County Financial Assistance Supervisor Beth VanderPlaats worried.

“People are getting the wrong idea,” she said.

Welfare — the all-encompassing term for government assistance programs — is not “something for nothing,” VanderPlaats said. And, despite popular belief, she said the programs do not encourage people to stay in the unemployment line.

Two programs VanderPlaats has worked closely on in a partnership with the Pine Technical College Employment and Training Center in Milaca exemplify the success of requiring recipients to do the leg work, she said.

One of those efforts, the Minnesota Family Investment Program, pairs recipients with job counselors who help develop employment plans, hone interviewing and resume skills, and brush up on job seeking methods in tune with the digital age. Meanwhile, MFIP participants receive cash grants and food assistance. A single parent of two children who is looking for work receives a cash grant of $532 and food benefits of $473 per month.

That assistance starts to phase out once the person finds employment. The reduction in benefits depends on the wages earned. For example, if that parent finds a full-time minimum wage position that pays $1,247 per month, they can still receive food assistance. Although the cash assistance is no longer paid, the family still earns $574 more than they were without working.

Until they find that employment, however, recipients of the grant assistance must spend at least 30 hours per week job searching. Participants are hard-pressed to fudge the numbers as they are under the supervision of a job counselor who monitors their progress.

“With the MFIP program, it’s not like you come apply and then go home and sit waiting for your check,” VanderPlaats said. “You have to work for it.”

If the requirements are not met, grant benefits are reduced by 10 percent in the first month and a 30 percent reduction kicks in by months two through six. If after six months the individual continues to fail to comply, the assistance ends.

“They have to do something each week, each month, to receive those benefits,” Pine Technical College employment supervisor Doreen Polzin said. “And that’s our job to monitor that to make sure they’re meeting those requirements.”

According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, 70 percent of MFIP recipients are children, financial assistance for most families ends at five years (fewer than 10 percent of families are on assistance for that long), and two-thirds of those who use the program are off of it by three years, or at least working 30 hours per week.

For the full story, see the Thursday, April 12 print edition of the Times.