Program a starting point to get off welfare

Sometimes people hit roadblocks in life – jobs are lost, relationships fracture, at times resulting in substantial loss of resources and income, and other problems arise that make it very difficult just to secure basic necessities.

Subsequently, people who hit those rough patches sometimes end up on public assistance.

Tony Gatenbein, the employment and training center executive director at Pine Technical College in Pine City, said some people enter the welfare program for a time and are able to quickly get back on their feet after they get their lives back together because they have the skills to attain employment. But there exists a contingent of people in every area of the country that need extra help to move beyond reliance upon public assistance, he added.

In Minnesota, there are a limited number of training programs offered to those struggling to get off welfare and back into the workforce.

Pine Tech offers the only program in the state that works with counties to offer basic training to people having difficulties getting off public assistance.

The college partners with and receives funding from Chisago, Isanti, Pine and Mille Lacs counties.

Through that training program, Pine Tech works with people on soft skills, such as time management, and offers training in areas like nursing assistance and welding.

Currently, the college has resources for 64 people – 42 nursing assistants and 22 manufacturing welders.

“I think the public assistance welfare system is the safety net before people become homeless,” Gatenbein said. “We’re helping people to get back on track.”

Law limits amount of training

Pine Technical College President Robert Musgrove said current welfare laws limit how much training an educational institution can offer to those on public assistance.

“One flaw in the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 is also its strength,” he said. “It had a very strong ‘work first’ philosophy and limited training. Which, for some people makes sense, but for others they might be capable of more if they had a little more training than the act allows for.”

He added, “When you get down to the brass tax of the whole thing, if somebody is working and going to school, they’re not getting any cash assistance. If we’ve got them pointed in the right direction and they’re going down that road, they may not count in the work participation rate, but they are being successful because they’re not on public assistance.”

Even with the limitation the Welfare Reform Act imposes, Gatenbein said Pine Tech works with clients in every way it can.

“The message we want to get to people is that we’ll help you get started,” he said. “After that you’re in charge of your own destiny.”

Limits of welfare

Gatenbein and Musgrove also said they wanted to dispel some of the misinformation about welfare, such as that people can simply stay on the program for life and never work, or people can just keep having children because they’ll be granted exceptions for every child in their care.

Gatenbein said there is a 60-month lifetime limit to the public assistance program.

There are some exceptions to that limit, such as when a woman has a child.

In those instances, a person could be granted a 16-month extension, but Gatenbein said the extension could only be used on a one-time basis.

A person who has multiple children in hopes of receiving more extensions would not be granted extra time on public assistance above the 60 months.

Gatenbein also noted those who have disabilities would likely be directed toward other programs, such as Social Security.

He did mention there are people who try to take advantage of the public assistance system, and working with clients who come from “generational poverty” is often times difficult. But he noted he believes most people only rely on public assistance during dire circumstances.

“Some folks just happened to have a run of bad luck,” Musgrove said. “But otherwise, they’re OK.”

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