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WILLMAR -- With statistics showing that a lack of education is a sure ticket to poverty, the Kandiyohi County Commissioners want to make a high school diploma mandatory when receiving work-related public assistance.

Not incorporating a diploma or a general educational development requirement is a "disservice" to people who are striving to achieve economic independence and employment stability, said Commissioner Harlan Madsen.

"It's a glaring hole that we do not have that as a requirement," he said.

Currently, people who are 19 years old and younger are required to work toward completing a GED as part of their employment development plan while receiving assistance, like the Minnesota Family Investment Program and the diversionary work program, said Barb Kavanagh, family services supervisor. Only people with dependent children are eligible for the programs.

But a GED is not mandatory for those who are older than 19.

When welfare was reformed in 1998, the new focus was on "the most direct route to employment," said Pat Jacobs, from the Workforce Center in Willmar.

Madsen said financial support for education was taken away at that time for people needing work-related assistance.

At its meeting Tuesday, the County Board of Commissioners asked staff from the county Family Services Department and the Workforce Center to seek changes with state and federal decision-makers to put an educational requirement back into the programs.

At a minimum, said Madsen, a high school diploma or GED should be required.

Madsen said he'll carry the request to Washington, D.C., when he goes there next month to meet with lawmakers along with the state and national county associations. "I fully intend to take this forward," he said.

Madsen said the proposal is "controversial and it'll cost some dollars," but the investment will be worth it.

"The short-sightedness and lack of investment now will come back to bite us really, really hard in the long term in our community and our county and our state unless we emphasize education," he said.

Madsen said it's irresponsible not to provide incentives and encouragement for people to "better their lives" and obtain basic education while they're also receiving assistance and seeking employment. "Shame on us," he said.

With the tight economy and few jobs, Jacobs said, "The folks without an education and poor work history are going to have an even tougher time."

"Education is a critical aspect to independence," said Jay Kieft, family services director, and there should be ways -- either through mandates or incentives -- to encourage "behaviors that lead to success."

Getting the changes made on the state or federal level won't be easy, but county officials said they'll begin the process.

"We'll put it on paper and send it off to legislators and (the Department of Human Services)," said Jacobs.

Nobody knows what the outcome will be, but Madsen said without discussing the proposal, nothing will happen.


Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750