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Don't let myths muddy the debate over welfare

In casual conversations, people often throw around information about topics they know very little about.

There's nothing wrong with pitching in your two-cents, but when misinformation is passed on, it can get become ingrained in people's consciousness and accepted as fact. That only complicates the approach to addressing a problem.

Consider Minnesota's programs for helping the poor. A couple of new reports released this week should shatter some myths people have about welfare and feeding the hungry.

How many times have you heard variations on these comments:

Minnesota is a magnet for drawing freeloaders because with our bloated welfare system, they've got it made here.

Reality: Minnesota's welfare benefits are not as extravagant as one might think. In fact, the monthly payment for a single-parent family of three is $532. Fifteen other states are more generous with Alaska leading the way. It pays a benefit of $923.

Why does Minnesota spend so much on welfare -- it keeps going up and up and up.

Reality: Minnesota's welfare benefits have been frozen for more than 20 years. A single mom with two children, for instance, receives a benefit of $437 a month - the same amount she would have received back in 1986. If the benefit would have kept pace with inflation, the amount would be $1,025.

Why does Minnesota hand out so much money in food stamps? Too many people are on it. That's a big expense that could be cut.

Reality: Only about 25 percent of the elderly people who are eligible for food stamps are enrolled in the program. A summer meal program for children is also under used; only between 10 to 15 percent of those eligible are enrolled. A lot of people simply don't know the help is available. Others turn to food shelves, which have reported a surge in demand. But the sad part: An increasing number of low-income people just go hungry. A study found that, collectively, poor people who could be eligible for state food programs skip 125 million meals every year.

We raise these points not to categorically defend the welfare program. There is fraud in the system, to be sure, and improvements and reforms should be explored.

In these trying economic times, the state's safety net for the poor will likely be put to the test as more people turn to it for temporary help. Trying to poke holes into it by jumping to false conclusions and perpetuating the myths doesn't do anyone any good. -- Alexandria Echo Press