Pilot poverty program offers flexible funding

April 12, 2019

State lawmakers are being asked to provide $1 million in hopes of putting single parents and their children on a new path out of poverty this summer.

The Pathways to Prosperity and Wellness pilot program will begin rolling out in July with the eventual goal of including 100 families in Olmsted and Dakota counties.

“We want to impact policy,” said Paul Fleissner, Olmsted County’s deputy administrator of health, housing and human services.

The goal of the pilot program is to test whether the counties can see improved outcomes for families in poverty by using a different approach, part of which is adding flexibility to benefits received through various state and federal programs.

Each program comes with regulations and limits that can hamper success.

As an example, Fleissner points to a single parent who might rely on daycare assistance to be able to work. Program rules limit funding based on income.

“When you get to about $19 an hour, which is really not a livable wage in either Dakota or Olmsted County, you start to lose $7 for every dollar you earn if you get a raise,” he said, noting the result is a reluctance to want to improve in the workforce.

“We have families turn down raises all the time,” he said.

At the same time, Fleissner said, the parent might be eligible for other benefits that aren’t needed, due to the unique circumstances that face any family. Those benefits, whether for housing, food or other basic needs, can’t be tapped for childcare or other uses without triggering violations of state or federal regulations.

That’s where the $1 million state request comes in.

It would be the start of a fund to provide flexible benefits. Another $2.8 million is expected to come from private foundations.

“We’ve had several foundations interested in funding the rest,” Fleissner recently told members of the Minnesota House’s Health and Human Services Finance Committee, noting that the state funds would not be spent until the private funds are raised.

The $3.8 million is key, because it is the amount that would be available to 100 families through existing state and federal programs.

“What we are trying to do is free ourselves up from the rules and duplicate what they would be entitled to in a normal system,” Fleissner said, noting the participants in the pilot program would not tap into the existing programs.

Rep. Laurie Halverson, who sponsored the House bill seeking the funding, said it’s important to find a new path that goes beyond financing benefits.

The pilot program will also analyze specific needs of each participating family to ensure provided benefits offer the best possible support.

“It starts with an approach of what makes families healthy,” the Eagan DFLer said. “It doesn’t start with filling pots with money and assuming that’s what’s going to make the difference. It’s really about what wraps around the family that makes the difference.”

The House bill is being supported by Rep. Nels Pierson, R-Stewartville, and Rep. Tina Liebling, who leads the Health and Human Services Finance Committee.

The companion Senate measure has the support of Sen. Carla Nelson and Sen. Dave Senjem. The Rochester Republicans signed onto a bill sponsored by Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka.

Liebling called the planned project “intriguing”, noting it could provide ways to overcome barriers to escaping poverty.

“We talk a lot on this committee and the HHS Policy Committee about how really, sort of, dysfunctional a lot of our economic support programs are,” she told fellow committee members during a hearing on the bill last month.

Rep. Barb Haley said she’s heard from employers outside the two counties who are concerned about program limits that hinder advancement for qualified employees in the workforce.

“We want folks to be productive and work when they are able,” the Red Wing Republican said.

Fleissner said the goal is to test the funding flexibility and revised approach to working with families to see if the program will offer solutions that could be spread throughout the state, as well as the nation.

Minnesota Department of Human Services funding was key to initiating the effort, and federal funding will be used to conduct a controlled study of the outcomes.

The first families to enroll in the pilot program in Olmsted and Dakota counties are slated to start in July, with limited numbers to work out any potential kinks in the new practices and assessment tools, said Corrine Erickson, Olmsted County’s Family Support and Assistance director.

“It’s going to change how we do our work,” she said, echoing Fleissner’s goal of also changing policy on a larger scale.