The monthly cash benefit for families in the Minnesota Family Investment Program – or MFIP – hasn’t changed since 1986, and only provides $437 a month for a family of two, $532 for a family of three, or $621 for a family of four.
“Minnesota was really good to me and provided the assistance I needed at a very tough time in my life,” Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein (DFL-New Brighton) told the House Health and Human Services Finance Division Wednesday. “I probably would not be sitting here today (without it). I would not have been able to keep my house. I would not have been able to support my children. I would not have been able to continue on with my education.”
But even two decades ago, getting by on the funding levels available through MFIP was a challenge, she said.
Kunesh-Podein sponsors HF799, which would increase the MFIP cash benefit $200 by October 2022 through $50 increments and require the amount to be increased another 2 percent each year, beginning in 2023. The initial $50 increases would take place in March 2020 and in October 2020, 2021, and 2022.
It was one of several bills related to MFIP funding that came before the division Wednesday, all of which were held over for possible inclusion in an omnibus bill.
MFIP helps families move to financial stability through income support, food benefits, and employment services. Most families are in the program for 12 months or less, and most of the people supported by the program are children or infants, said Claire Wilson, deputy policy commissioner at the Department of Human Services.
Many adults in the program are working in low-wage, part-time jobs, which means they don’t qualify for unemployment, but also cannot live on the wages they’re making, Anne Krisnik, executive director of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, said in support of any bill raising the cash benefit.
A $110 monthly housing assistance grant is also available for some families in the program, but that and the cash grant are seldom sufficient to help families secure housing at market rates, Wilson said.
“It’s really hard for single mothers. It’s just really, really hard,” said Toshieka Washington, a single mom from Duluth with two children who is currently in the MFIP program.
Washington has previously been homeless and can’t currently work because of medical problems, but has been able to make her rent payments every month, thanks to subsidized housing. Without it, she wouldn’t be able to cover the cost of rent. Even with the support available, things like haircuts, Wi-Fi, and fieldtrips can remain out of reach, she said. Last month, she had to sell a bicycle to make sure her 16 year old would be able to attend a school dance, Washington said.
After her rent and buying one of her children a new pair of shoes, “I can’t afford anything else for my other son,” she said.
Questions remain about how the MFIP increases would be funded – whether through the General Fund or by tapping into a federal block grant.
Representatives of Minnesota IT Services said that it could take five to 10 months to implement the proposed changes – depending on which bill was approved – because of the work needed to recalculate and determine benefit changes, adjust other program information impacted by the MFIP data, and to make sure all of these interconnected changes occur consistently and in concert with each other.
The MFIP cash benefit would need to be adjusted $1,000 a month to truly adjust for inflation since the 1980s, said Senta Leff, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless.
But even a $200 a month increase could make a real difference in the lives of people in the program, testifiers said.
“This makes common sense, because families living in 2019 simply cannot survive, let alone thrive, on 1986 dollars,” Leff said.
Gov. Tim Walz’s proposed budget, released last month, includes a $100 per month increase to the MFIP cash benefit. Other proposals could increase it as much as $300 a month and accommodate other provisions to adjust the monthly cash benefit automatically in the future.