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October 1998 County Officials Told

Stop the War on the Poor

by Mick Kelly |
October 21, 1998
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Minneapolis, MN - Hennepin County Commissioners got an earful, when more than 100 people packed a September 8 hearing on Minnesota’s new welfare program. Low income people, organized by the Welfare Rights Committee, chanted, held signs, and testified that the Minnesota Family Investment Program - Statewide (MFIP-S) was a "disaster."

Deb Konechne, a leader of the Welfare Rights Committee, testified that, "MFIP-S is a program for more poverty, more hunger, and more homelessness. In Hennepin County, there is a systematic pattern of abuse and lies. As a matter of policy, people on public assistance are not being told what their rights are and what they are entitled to." She added that the Commissioners have "the power and money to undo the attacks on welfare" that were enacted by the State legislature.

Many of those in attendance were Somali and Hmong immigrants. Ardo Shvusef Diriye, a Somali refugee charged, "Financial workers abuse Somali women. They insult and threaten us. They make us sign papers without translation or explanation."

A sharp exchange broke out when Committee member Linden Gawboy challenged the way Commissioner Mark Andrews was running the hearing. She said that there were no time limits when people handpicked by the county gave testimony, but when low income people criticized the County, a three minute time limit was imposed. In addition, when people who needed translation testified, the time used to translate was counted against them.

Campaign vs. County Officials

The September 8th action was the latest in a series of confrontations with county officials. At an earlier meeting, Barry Blomgren, Hennepin County Director of Economic Assistance, faced a packed room of welfare recipients, most of whom were immigrants. Person after person spoke of rude case workers, who pushed non-English speakers into work searches. A woman from Somalia told of taking her teenage daughter to job interviews so she would have a translator. Another group of non-English speaking immigrants told of sitting through a two day "job skills" class conducted in English. At the end they were given a certificate and told that it would help them find a job.

"County welfare heads responded by saying 'everything is OK,'" said Konechne. "Well everything isn't OK. It's not OK that people's right to an education is being trampled on. It's not OK that English as a Second Language isn't treated as a first option over work search. In fact, it's criminal - people are being pushed into the streets."

Demands On Table

Committee members have placed eight demands on County officials and say that they will continue to put the heat on officials until demands are met.

The demands include: End all discrimination against immigrants; all welfare workers must inform recipients of their educational rights; no one should be pushed into low wage, dead-end jobs; end the sanctions which are cutting benefits; the County must make sure that no one goes hungry and must reject the 5 year life time limit.

"The Commissioners have a choice," said Konechne. "They can commit to fight poverty or to fight the poor. Until we get justice, they won’t have a moment of peace."