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Children's advocacy groups discuss needs of families

Minnesota's children, guaranteed by the State Constitution to an education, also deserve a right to access to affordable health care, says a coalition of children's advocacy groups.

And that includes affordable child care for working parents and living-wage jobs to support families.

There are 87,500 families living in poverty in Minnesota, said Carole Specktor, legislative and advocacy director, said at a recent forum on economic issues facing working families held at the Bemidji Boys & Girls Club.

"The majority are working and trying to achieve self-sufficiency," she said. "The child poverty rate is increasing, and that's a disturbing trend."

There are 143,000 children living in poverty in Minnesota, she said, an increase of 35 percent this decade. And with jobs numbers down, "unfortunately I fear these poverty numbers are only going to get worse."

In the metro area, 76,000 people are competing for 30,000 jobs, while in rural Minnesota, 74,000 people are chasing 21,000 jobs.

Specktor, and others representing the Child Care Works and Jobs Now Coalition, outlined a bleak picture for children in low-income families. Thousands of kids still lack health insurance, state subsidies for child care for working families has been cut, and many families subsist on income from jobs which don't pay family-supporting wages.

A goal of CDF Minnesota is to provide all children in Minnesota with health insurance, Specktor said.

"Public education is about one of the only things that is guaranteed right now, and in order for children to get the medical services they need and to do well in school, grow up and be productive citizens, we think that children should also have guaranteed access to health care coverage," she said.

"We believe that where their parents work or how much they earn, it should not matter," she added. "Their parents are working very hard and still in poverty should not impact whether or not a child should get health care coverage."

Specktor said barriers need to be eliminated from public assistance programs such as Medical Assistance for the poor and MinnesotaCare for working families transitioning from welfare to self-sufficiency.

Still, more than 1 million Minnesotans spend more than 10 percent of their income on health care and as a result, "children are falling through the cracks," she said.

There are now 85,000 uninsured children in Minnesota now, she said, and 400,000 Minnesotans uninsured. "We're Minnesota, we can do better than that."

The 2008 Legislature took $50 million from the Health Care Access Fund to help balance the state budget, funds Specktor said could have expanded MinnesotaCare to more uninsured children. CDF Minnesota hopes to see the 2009 Legislature restore funding to, first, insure all children, and second to insure all Minnesotans.

Working families also face challenges in supporting their families, said Kevin Ristau of the Jobs Now Coalition.

With the federal minimum wage now $6.55 an hour, Ristau said a two-wage-earner family would need to make $13.41 an hour each to provide the basic necessities to the family -- a figure that doesn't include debt payments, set asides for retirement, college tuition for their children or entertainment.

"It's the basic needs standard which really falls very far short of what you would call a middle-class standard of living -- even a lower middle class standard of living," he said.

For Beltrami County, for a two-wage-earner family with two children, the family would need to total their jobs at $23.01 an hour just to pay basic needs.

In Minnesota, 624,000 jobs pay less than the inflation-adjusted minimum wage which should be $10.06 an hour, Ristau said. That amounts to 27 percent of the jobs in Minnesota, and 32 percent of the jobs in the five-county Headwaters Region.

":Many other countries have higher minimum wages than the U.S. minimum wage," he said, citing the United Kingdom at $12.60 an hour, France at $13.09 and Australia at $14.89.

"At $6.55 per hour, a couple with two children living in Minnesota would have to work more than four full-time minimum-wage jobs -- or 164 hours a week -- just to meet basic needs," Ristau said.

The 2008 Legislature passed a bill raising the state's minimum wage to $7.75 an hour on Aug. 1, 2009, but the measure was vetoed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. "There is strong support in the state for restoring a decent floor under the wages," Ristau said, adding that the bill will be back.

Working families also face the high cost of child care, which falls heavy on families that are transitioning from welfare to work, said Jim Carlson, director of public policy for Child Care Works. The average cost in Minnesota for child care is $12,840.

The state's Child Care Assistance Program provides subsidies to families, based on ability to pay, but the Legislature from 2003-05 cut $213 million from the program.

With lower state reimbursements, many child care providers can't make it and are closing, he said, further tightening up the ability of working families to become self-sufficient. And there is currently a 5,000 family waiting list for the program.

Quality child care and early childhood education is key to child development between birth and age 5, he said. "If you don't use those brain cells (in early development), you lose your chance to continue to learn in the future."

Carlson cited the oft-mentioned study by Art Rolnick of the Federal Reserve in Minneapolis who found that for every $1 invested in early childhood programs, a $12 return is seen in future savings in corrections and welfare.

"Those children will stay in school, graduate and get a job, and not go on the welfare system, won't end up in prisons and so forth," Carlson said.

Mike Knott, pastor at House of Prayer in Bemidji, questioned Carlson on the need for public assistance for child care, saying the family unit would be better served with a parent staying at home.

"The first five years of a child's development are absolutely crucial, and we have to be there for our children," Knott said. "But I heard you make an unqualified assumption that it's good for anyone who wants to work ... that we should publicly subsidize parents who prefer work than being with their children."

"We live in a society where people have choices," Carlson said. "We've made a choice in Minnesota that we want people to work. In fact, our welfare laws force people to work."

If society has rules that says people must work to wean off of welfare, then the state must also help with care for their children, he said. "If we don't want to mandate that, if we as a society say we want you to stay home, then a lot of people have to change. "

That would include boosting wages so that a family member can stay at home with the children, he said. "The way things are set up now, two people have to work to make it."

The tradition of a working parent while the other parent cares for the kids at home "just isn't the reality," Carlson said.

Knott argued that having children is also a choice parents make. "If someone chooses to have children, we don't need to subsidize their child care, If we care about our children, I think it's good to have a mom or a dad with them during those crucial first five years."

The three groups also urged advocacy among the 20 people who attended the forum, working to elect legislators who support their positions and then advocating with the eventual winners.

Attending the forum also were Assistant House Majority Leader Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, and two candidates vying to succeed him -- Republican John Carlson and Democrat John Persell.