Lori Sturdevant
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Six governors and nine lieutenant governors have come and/or gone since 1986, when Minnesota last gave a raise to the poorest of this state’s poor parents and children via the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP). Session after session, monthly cash grants have been stuck where they were set in 1986. For a one parent/one child family, that’s an inflation-depleted $348.

Why should this year be any different? The answer boils down to two words: Peggy Flanagan.

It’s a sure bet that Minnesota’s DFL lieutenant governor will be at the end-of-session negotiating table when MFIP’s 2020-21 budget is set.

That’s how the Tim Walz-Peggy Flanagan gubernatorial team rolls — in tandem. In her first three months in office, Flanagan has been more conspicuously engaged in gubernatorial activity than any other lieutenant governor in memory. Not even Tina Smith, the first-term chief of staff who became Gov. Mark Dayton’s second-term lieutenant and now serves in the U.S. Senate, was more often seen at her governor’s elbow.

“The governor and I are really clear: We are partners,” Flanagan said of her working relationship with Walz. “I am his top adviser. We complement one another in life experiences.”

Flanagan’s life experiences. That — more than her close-to-the-throne position in this administration — is why advocates for the poor are more hopeful about an MFIP increase than they’ve been in many a year. The 39-year-old lieutenant governor’s history includes two childhood stints as a recipient of the state’s predecessor program to MFIP. She was in first grade the last time the monthly awards were increased.

Flanagan remembers. She wore saddle shoes that clicked as she walked down the long hallway of the Ramar Building, a Hennepin County welfare service center in Minneapolis, with her mother, a single parent. The little girl was aware that she was part of the reason they were there. Peggy had severe asthma and had missed a great deal of school. The need to care for a sick daughter contributed to Pat Flanagan’s job loss. For low-wage workers like her — then and now — welfare functions as de facto unemployment compensation.

“It was everything,” Flanagan says now about the government help she and her mother received during two lean spells. “It was the food on my table, the clothes on my back.” In addition to a monthly state check, the little household qualified for food stamps (today’s SNAP), a Section 8 federal housing subisidy, and later, a child care subsidy through the state/federal Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP).

A straight line can be drawn between the experiences of that little girl in St. Louis Park and the young woman who worked as a community organizer among Native Americans in Minneapolis (she is a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe), served on the Minneapolis School Board, headed the state chapter of the Children’s Defense Fund and was elected in 2014 to the Minnesota House. She became lieutenant governor in January.

But Flanagan says it wasn’t until she was at the Capitol in recent years and heard legislators’ comments about welfare recipients that she owned up to the MFIP chapter of her story. She overheard a legislator say that child care subsidies “are just welfare, and people on welfare are losers.”

In that moment, anger overcame reticence. She says she shot back: “My mom used these programs because she was a good mom, not a loser. She’s the hardest-working person I know. She was trying to do the best she could for me. There are moms on these programs all over this state trying to do the best for their kids.”

She argues that Minnesota ought to do better by them — not just because those parents are struggling today, but because a greater measure of financial stability for their children will pay a dividend later.

“We know that if families have additional income, we improve child outcomes,” Flanagan says. “This is a proven two-generational strategy to turn the trend curve on poverty.”

The two-generational case is the one Flanagan intends to press upon her fellow budgeteers. The Walz budget seeks a $100-per-month increase in MFIP benefits. So does the DFL-controlled House, where another former MFIP kid, Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, is the MFIP bill’s sponsor. The state Senate’s Republican-crafted budget proposal does not include an MFIP boost.

But this is not an issue that divides neatly on partisan lines. Lawmakers in both parties in recent years have sought an MFIP raise. Lawmakers in both parties have opted not to do so, for reasons both fiscal and political.

A $100-per-month MFIP raise translates to about $33 million per year in additional state spending. That’s a substantial sum in a tight state budget — particularly for something with little political payoff.

Americans have long attached a stigma to government assistance for the poor, clinging to a pre-Industrial Age faith that hard work is all that’s needed for a household to provide for its own. That notion faded during the Great Depression, then roared back when Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan accused “welfare queens” of defrauding the government. By the 1990s, it was Democratic President Bill Clinton who moved to “end welfare as we know it,” imposing a 60-month time limit on monthly cash payments and allowing states to use federal welfare payments (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) for purposes other than traditional welfare.

As a result, last year Minnesota spent only 17 percent of its federal TANF money on MFIP basic assistance to poor families.

– and the process required to apply for them so onerous — that many eligible families don’t bother. A tally last October found MFIP reaching nearly 40,000 children. The Children’s Defense Fund says that’s only about a quarter of the Minnesota kids whose family incomes are low enough to qualify for the aid. By that measure alone, MFIP is failing to serve its intended purpose.

For all those reasons, politicians driving toward higher office have steered clear of MFIP. My guess is that some DFL operative has already advised Flanagan that for her career’s sake, she should champion a more popular and less problematic cause.

I hope she’s also hearing some contrary advice: Flanagan would do well this session to demonstrate that all the Walz team talk isn’t just trendy rhetoric. She needs a visible policy win to claim as her own if she’s to be seen as more than an appendage to the governor. She should be eager to prove that she brings more than diversity to the executive suite. It makes sense that the policy to which she’d stake her claim would be one close to her heart. That gives her a chance to convey an authenticity that’s politically appealing because it’s all too rare.

Three decades of futility say that getting an MFIP increase isn’t easy. But they also say that a raise is long overdue — and that the lawmaker who gets it done will deserve notice.

Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer and an occasional columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.