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Who will listen to plight of poor?; Foes of welfare cutoff take their pleas to the Legislature

BY: Doug Grow; Staff Writer, Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN) January 30, 2002, Wednesday

They may have been the noisiest people at the Capitol on Tuesday, and likely the least heard.      

As the Minnesota legislative session began, about 150 people gathered under the banner of the Welfare Rights Committee, demanding a moratorium on the welfare time limit in the state.      

"The faces of the poorest," said Deb Konechne, a rally leader, as she looked at a gathering that included a large number of Hmong and Somali women.      

While veteran ralliers yelled old chants _ "No justice, no peace," and "Hey politicians, we're at your door; stop the war on the poor" _ most of the Hmong and Somali women marched shyly, heads down.      

What Konechne and the others say they fear is that despite this recession, the welfare reforms that were begun in boom times will not be altered. Those reforms were based on the premise that welfare recipients had five years to find at least part-time work. No work in five years, no more welfare.      

The first five-year deadline hits on July 1. According to Welfare Rights supporters, 2,500 Minnesota families, including more than 8,000 children, will be knocked off welfare. More will follow as others reach the five-year lifetime limit for benefits.     

"Are the Republicans really going to stand up and insist on throwing women and children into the streets?" Konechne said.      

As is often the case with Konechne, the statement was dramatic. But it's loaded with problems.      

First, ever since welfare reform first was mentioned, there have been predictions that women and children would be left freezing in the streets. In fact, the homeless shelters are overflowing with women and kids, but for most of us they're generally out of sight.      

Beyond that, it's easier to believe that there really is work for those who really want it.      

Who among us hasn't thought the things that Sen. Dick Day, R-Owatonna and the minority leader, was saying Tuesday when asked about the possibility of a moratorium on the five-year welfare cutoff?      

"You mean someone can't get a job after five years?" Day said. "I tell you what, if you can't get a job after five years, I want you to come to Owatonna and I'll get you a job and housing.      

"Man, I'm no hard-ass," Day continued, "but I see men out there, younger and stronger than me, and they're not working. What's that about?"      

Day said there are exceptions built into the welfare law for people who can't get work because of physical or emotional reasons. He said he sees no need to even consider a moratorium.      

Given the recession and given increasing numbers of layoffs, the needs of the poor surely are increasing. But given legislative priorities _ balancing the budget, redistricting, transportation, perhaps a stadium or two _ the woes of the poorest have never seemed less likely to be addressed.      

The Welfare Rights Committee did have allies at Tuesday's rally. More than 30 organizations, including a couple of major labor groups, signed on as supporters.      

In addition, two prominent DFL senators _ John Hottinger of Mankato, the assistant majority leader, and Linda Berglin of Minneapolis _ are pushing for a three-year moratorium on the cutoff.      

Berglin points out that the current economy means the poor are getting bounced off jobs or are at least seeing huge reductions in hours. Welfare reform, she points out to anyone who listens, was based on the assumptions of a strong economy. The economy has changed dramatically. Shouldn't the rules of reform also change _ at least until the economy rebounds?      

Despite the logic of their position, Berglin and Hottinger admit they face an uphill political battle.      

For starters, empathy for the poor has been missing in action politically for years. And the public is not demanding that it return.      

"It's frustrating that empathy went down when times were good," Hottinger said. "We focused on the community of one instead of the community as a whole."      

Beyond that, it's a small, cloutless group of people facing the July 1 cutoff.      

"They're the last hired and the first fired," Berglin said.      

And the least heard.     

_ Doug Grow is at