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A 'War on the Poor' at the State Capitol?

February 29, 2012

ST. PAUL, Minn. - This legislative session has turned into a kind of "war on the poor," according to some advocates for Minnesotans who are struggling with poverty.

With poverty on the rise, says Brian Rusche, executive director of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, lawmakers should be looking at ways to help people who have been battered by the economy.

"And move out on the recommendations that the Legislative Commission to End Poverty put forth a couple of years ago - but instead of that, now the Legislature has been looking at bills that would restrict the safety net."

What's needed, Rusche says, is a strong effort to grow the number of good-paying jobs available in Minnesota, rather than adding a greater stigma to those who need help.

"It's the wrong diagnosis of the problem. People that are living below poverty want to work, and many of them do, and they work multiple jobs. They want to provide for their families, and they're trying as best they can."

Some legislation seeks to restrict eligibility or reduce benefits to save the state money. One proposal would limit what types of food a person could buy using benefits. Another would ban help for anyone with a drug offense in the past 10 years. To Rusche, that amounts to using public assistance programs as "judge and jury."

"Which is, I think, an extremely punitive look-back period because of all the people who do find paths of recovery and are doing better. Shouldn't we as a community get behind those folks and their efforts to get back on their feet instead of continuing to punish them?"

In all, more than a dozen bills Rusche believes would have a negative impact on the poor have been floated at the State Capitol. Their sponsors say the ideas would save money and minimize the abuse of state-funded programs.

The current poverty rate in Minnesota is nearly 12 percent.

More information on poverty in Minnesota is online at commissions.leg.state.mn.us.

John Michaelson, Public News Service - MN