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Tackling welfare’s racial gap January 23, 2007

Posted by C.A.R.D in African Americans, African-American, American Indian, American Indians, Asian, Blacks, Card, Citizens Against Racism and Discrimination, Hispanic, minorities, White, Whites.

Counties are under pressure to get more black and American Indian families off of assistance or risk losing a chunk of federal money.

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.

“The goal that the state has given us is that African-Americans and Native Americans should be doing as well as everyone else,” said Ruth Krueger, who directs Dakota County’s Department of Employment and Economic Assistance.

“Our overarching goal is to get everyone off welfare,” she said. “We don’t want to find that there is one group that is being left behind on that.”

And there’s little time. Millions of dollars for needy families could be at stake.

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.

“It’s a requirement, and we’re subject to penalties if we don’t reach it,” said Chuck Johnson, assistant state commissioner of Children and Family Services.

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 / T

o 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.

The state’s family-welfare program — the Minnesota Family Investment Program, or MFIP — is exclusively for families with children, and a majority of recipients are single mothers. Since the welfare-reform efforts of the late 1990s, recipients are granted benefits for no longer than five years.

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.

“We’ve been struggling with how fast our caseload is going up,” Krueger said.

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.

Armed with enthusiasm and shoe-leather, Krueger organized separate focus groups of black, American Indian and white welfare recipients in May and September. In October, she held a community forum with church leaders, teachers, government workers and employers.

“My goal is to make one contact per week with someone who might be interested in working on this,” Krueger said. “I talked to a Lions Club last month.”

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.

“You talk to one group … and they would say that it’s because of the ‘culture of poverty,’ Grant said. “You talk to another group, and they say it’s because of a long-term racial tax — there’s concrete discrimination that happens to African-Americans that doesn’t happen to other groups.

“It’s such a swamp, such a morass, that counties say, ‘Well, we don’t have any control over that, (and the state shouldn’t) hold us accountable,’ ” Grant said.

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 / A

s a student, Jessica K. Black looked forward to the future. While still in high school, she took classes at a technical college, studying to be a nursing assistant. She considered herself motivated and resourceful.

But at 19, an unplanned pregnancy dragged her off course.

Black, of St. Paul, spent three years on MFIP in the late 1990s, working clerical assignments through temporary staffing agencies, and later holding down double shifts at two Perkins Restaurants.

She finally broke free from her $5-per-hour jobs by moving out of state and finding employment at a Head Start preschool program.

Looking back, Black, now 26 and working as a freelance housing advocate and family counselor for several nonprofits, doesn’t credit the welfare-to-work program with helping her get on her feet. She said her caseworkers never encouraged her to craft personal goals or envision steps to improve her situation.

Instead, she found the constant questions about how she spent her money and how many job hours she’d completed dehumanizing.

“These systems work just to get people out of crisis mode,” Black said. “But where’s the actual long-term planning to get people to a point of self-mastery, where they have the skills to work through their barriers?”

It’s a question echoed by advocates in the American Indian community, as well.

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 / R

amsey 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.

In Dakota County, Krueger hopes to do her share by chipping away at a common pitfall — distrust between black clients and their welfare caseworkers, or government in general.

In response, Krueger is hosting a training session for her employees on “motivational interviewing.” That way, caseworkers can encourage welfare recipients to see them as resources toward moving off welfare, rather than opponents.

Olmsted County has gone a step further. The county has hosted “empowerment workshops” with Somali immigrants, where groups of participants discuss their hopes for the future, trade job-search tips and troubleshoot problems together.

The approach worked so well, the county is adapting its workshops for a more general African-American audience. Washington County is interested in doing the same, Grant said.

C.a.r.d {Citizens Against Racism and Discrimination} Source: Twincities.com

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