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.
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.
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.
Of course, the best way to get anyone off of welfare is to end welfare itself.