Column #092. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Mar. 23, 2015; in print Mar. 24
"So, how are the children?"
This question, made prominent by the Children's Defense Fund, ought to be front and center as our legislators debate uses for the $1.9 billion surplus projected for the biennium. We have an opportunity to answer the question in the way Minnesotans have traditionally thought about ourselves.
Earlier this month I joined more than 800 at the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition's "Day on the Hill" in St. Paul. JRLC is sponsored by the Islamic Council of Minnesota, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, the Minnesota Catholic Conference and the Minnesota Council of Churches. It represents nearly 80 percent of Minnesotans who claim a religious identity. I chair the Advisory Council of the Interfaith Children's Advocacy Network, or iCAN, a program of JRLC.
JRLC and iCAN's legislative agenda directly addresses the question, "So, how are the children?" Our state needs to have a better answer. The current picture does not mesh with our reputation and self-image.
The U.S. Census Bureau reported that 176,000 children in Minnesota lived in poverty in 2013. To bring this closer to home, in that same year 52 percent of students in the St. Cloud school district were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch — a measure of poverty.
Family economic instability jeopardizes the chance for kids to have their basic needs met. Their path from cradle to career gets roadblocked at the start, and the ripple effect of such deprivation extends across the years of their lives.
The Minnesota faith community has a long tradition of engagement with this issue. In 2004, a group of 35 ecumenical and interfaith leaders, including then-St. Cloud Bishop John F. Kinney, signed "A Common
In 2006, the Minnesota Legislature responded by establishing the Legislative Commission to End Poverty in Minnesota by 2020. One of the commission's guiding principles: "Government is neither solely responsible for alleviating poverty nor removed from that responsibility."
Among the Commission's recommendations in its Final Report (2009) is this: "to restore work as a means out of poverty: increasing and expanding income tax credits for low-wage workers and fully funding child-care assistance and early childhood education programs."
There are bills before the Legislature that deal directly with these three recommendations. Call, write, email your representative and senator and tell them that their vote on these bills — their answer to "How are the children?"— is a measure of their public service.
- Restore work as a means out of poverty: House File 869 and Senate File 734 add $100/month to the Minnesota Family Investment Program grant to help families get stable, develop skills and get to work. The $532 per month has remained the same for 29 years. Had the grant kept up with inflation since 1986, it would be $1,134. An increase from $532 to $632 hardly seems extravagant.
- Tax credits: HF 1064 and SF 1494 improve the child- and dependent-care tax credit, with a focus on low- and moderate-income families.
- Fully funding child-care assistance: HF 1059 and SF 1200, the "Kids Can't Wait" bill, provide affordable, accessible child care for all Minnesota families by allocating sufficient funds to the Child Care Assistance Program for the 7,000 families on the waiting list to get child care.
- Additionally, a bill with direct impact on kids deals with a looming issue that was hardly on anybody's radar a decade ago: human trafficking, which is more prevalent in Central Minnesota than we used to imagine. Expert opinion says the typical age for a trafficked child is between 10 and 14. HF 1061 and SF 552 bring funding for Safe Harbor legislation to the level needed for a statewide network of services for victims of human trafficking.
In recent years our state's answer to "How are the children?" has been halting. The House, Senate and governor have the chance to make up for lost time. Minnesota has the means to do it.