There was good news from the Legislature in December when we learned that the state will have an unexpected budget surplus of $876 million projected for fiscal year 2012-13.
This good news could mean that further budget cuts will not be necessary this session. However, we are cautious in our optimism because the same budget forecast projected a $1.3 billion shortfall for the next budget cycle (fiscal years 2014-15), or $2.6 billion if the impact of inflation is included. An updated forecast will be presented in February which will determine the kind of fiscal decisions that may need to be made this next session.
What we do know for certain is that programs focused on ending poverty are needed now as much as ever. Data from the 2010 Census and the American Communities Survey indicate that we are clearly going in the wrong direction when one out of every 10 Minnesotans is living below the poverty line ($22,113 for a family of four).
The numbers are even more staggering for Minnesotans from communities of color: In 2010, 17.8 percent of Asians were living in poverty, as were 24.4 percent of Latinos and 37.2 percent of blacks.
Lack of affordable housing
While poverty is increasing and the need is great, the 2012 session will focus less on funding for current or new programs and more on the passage of the bonding bill. One potential component of the bonding bill is an allocation of a percentage of those dollars for housing construction and rehabilitation. With the rental market at historically low vacancy rates, access to affordable rental housing is meager and rents are trending upward.
The impact of this tight market and lack of affordable housing are evident on a daily basis in many of our Catholic Charities programs. Individuals at the Dorothy Day Center and families staying at our family shelter are having a difficult time finding permanent housing that will provide the stability they need for themselves and their families.
As in previous sessions, there may be attempts to limit the political engagement of Catholic Charities’ clients in the voting process. Under current law, it is possible for our staff to vouch for clients who don’t have permanent addresses and government-issued identification documents.
If these laws are changed, legislatively or through constitutional amendment, there will be an impact on many populations served by Catholic Charities, including people who are homeless, the elderly, students and others who are highly mobile.
Our own experience doing voter registration and assisting our clients in getting to the proper polling place reinforces our commitment to broad participation in the democratic process on an equal basis for all citizens, and our concern about disenfranchisement of those who already don’t feel they have much of a voice in society.
Navigating health care
As the state of Minnesota prepares to implement the federal Affordable Care Act, there are issues of concern to our clients and others living in poverty.
The state is in the process of constructing the online health care exchange and defining the role and responsibility of the organizations/persons who will be the navigators assisting consumers as they choose health insurance through the exchange. As this reform is administered, it is important to ensure that the navigators be capable of working with people from diverse racial and socio-economic backgrounds, those who do not have permanent addresses and recent immigrants.
Other issues of concern that are important to the clients of Catholic Charities and to others living in poverty are job creation and job training, hiring equity, access to affordable public transportation and maintaining the safety net with programs like General Assistance, the Minnesota Family Investment Program and Group Residential Housing.
Many have predicted that there will be an early close to the session so that legislators can adjust to their new district boundaries and head out on the campaign trail. Time will tell if the work ahead will allow for this early exit.
We invite you to join us in calling for an end to poverty and homelessness in whatever spheres of influence you have.
Kathy Tomlin is director of the Office for Social Justice of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Category: Legislative Guide