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State Demographer Tom Gillaspy sorts through papers Monday while telling a Minnesota House committee that poverty is up in the state, but trails the national average. Don Davis/Minn. State Capitol Bureau

Lawmakers look at cheap ways to end poverty

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ST. PAUL -- Minnesota legislators face a dilemma: Can they spend money from a tight budget to eliminate poverty by 2020?

If they spend money now, Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, said, more people would go to work and the state's economy would improve. But since lawmakers are not likely to start many new spending programs in light of a several-billion budget deficit, Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, said they can start the process by looking at improvements that cost little.

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"It doesn't cost a fortune to do good things," Lanning said as he and Mariani Monday presented a report from the Commission to End Poverty in Minnesota by 2020.

Work on the report began in 2007, before the recession hit and slammed the door on new state government spending.

But in testimony to the House Health Care and Human Services Committee, the two lawmakers said they need to get started.

"Poverty is a very important issue in our state," Lanning said, adding that it costs state government in the form of lost production, unemployment and state-funded services such as welfare.

Lanning told his colleagues that the state could start in places like increasing the number of Minnesotans who get a high school education. He said 36 percent of those in poverty lack a high school diploma.

Improving high school completion rates should not cost much, said Lanning, the poverty commission's top House Republican.

Lanning said another way to help poor Minnesotans is to expand Perham-based Northern Connections statewide. The organization provides free help to poor northwestern Minnesotans, including how to handle job interviews, how to write a resume and where to get immediate food and financial assistance.

Many low-income people lack financial literacy, the Moorhead lawmaker added: They don't know how to get out of poverty and they often are victims of people who take advantage of them.

Mariani, the task force's top Democrat, said that after extensive public meetings across the state, he came away surprised at how many people "followed all the rules" and still ended up poor.

The task force's report recommends a large variety of legislative action, from raising the minimum wage to increasing financial support for affordable housing. Mariani said they all do not have to be approved in the legislative session that begins next February.

"There are small bites we can take out of this thing," he said.

State Demographer Tom Gillaspy told the committee that Minnesota's poverty rate is increasing, but not as bad as it was in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The latest figures show 9.6 percent of Minnesotans live in poverty, compared to 13.2 percent nationwide. Mississippi has the worst figure, more than 21 percent.

Gillaspy said that while the percentage of those in poverty in the inner cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul is twice as high as greater Minnesota, both categories have about the same percentage of people making just above poverty. Suburbs do much better.

A survey by the Northwest Area Foundation, which serves eight states in the region, showed that the $21,834 federal poverty level for a family of four is too low. Nearly 70 percent of Minnesotans say a minimum of $40,000 annual income would be needed for the family.

More than two-thirds of Minnesotans say that those in poverty are not to blame; things "out of their control" forced them into the situation, the foundation reported.

Lanning and Mariani said the brightest news to come out of the legislative task force was that volunteers around the state are willing to help those in need.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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