Policymaking 101 requires you to put yourself in the shoes the people affected. Let’s jump into the shoes of one of the 10,000 adults without a high school diploma or GED who participate in Minnesota’s welfare program (Minnesota Family Investment Program, or MFIP). MFIP is the primary economic safety net for low-wage workers with children.

COUNSELOR: Good morning. I notice that you don’t have a high school diploma. Most people want to find a job as soon a possible, but your education level may be a barrier.

YOU: Wait a minute. I do want a job as soon as possible. But I must finish school before looking for a job again. I never get called back by employers when they see I didn’t finish high school.

COUNSELOR: Education is an option, but all hours are not an approved MFIP work activity. If you do pursue education, you’ll have to do other activities too, like job search, which you document on this form on a weekly…

[OK, so that’s policyspeak for yes you can, but federal policy doesn’t “count” all those hours toward the required hours to continue receiving benefits. To meet the required hours, in addition to education, participants must complete a certain additional number of job search or work hours. Confused? Me too. There should be a better way. More on this in a minute.]

YOU: OK. That’s confusing. But what I care about is where this program will get me. What’s my chance of success? How many participants leave MFIP with a job and how much do they make?

COUNSELOR: In Minnesota, 1 out of 3 participants leaves with a job, usually earning about $9.00 per hour.

YOU: But $9.00 an hour isn’t enough to pay my bills. I want a family-sustaining wage and I can’t even get close without a high school diploma, or maybe even more. Everybody knows that. I thought this program was about moving toward self-sufficiency…

COUNSELOR: It is…but we have to comply with federal and state guidelines. Getting more education should help. Right now, Minnesota lawmakers are considering the MFIP Workforce Education Bill. If it is adopted, it would allow you to earn a GED or post-secondary degree as an approved work activity. And, if the bill passes, I could really encourage the education required to at least get an entry-level job, or even better, an industry-recognized credential that would open more opportunities for a better paying job.

YOU: That’s good news if I can spend more time studying and less time jumping through hoops.

==

MFIP policy may be confusing, but making sure low-skill participants can easily access education is simple. No one wants to walk a mile, much less spend a career, in the labor market without a high school diploma and the skills needed by employers.

With a skills gap looming, Minnesota needs all hands on deck – including the 10,000 MFIP participants without a high school diploma – in our labor force. MFIP policy should encourage skilling up as a way to increase the number of adults who leave the program with a job, make a family-sustaining wage, and help Minnesota businesses compete in the global economy.

The MFIP Workforce Education Bill (HF2548/SF1739) is an essential step toward this kind of reform. It not only allows MFIP participants to earn a GED as an approved work activity, it requires counselors to inform every participant with a GED/diploma about their right to enroll in postsecondary education as an approved work activity. Let’s give participants (and counselors) the tools they need to make sure we are moving toward prosperity for all.

Guest Blogger: 

Bryan Lindsley is the executive director of the Minneapolis Saint Paul Regional Workforce Innovation Network (MSPWin), a philanthropic collaborative seeking to dramatically increase the number of adults earning family-sustaining wages. Prior to working for MSPWin, Bryan was executive director of the Governor’s Workforce Development Council from 2009-2013. He has also worked as a policy analyst, employment counselor and research consultant.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of MSPWin.