The recent welfare reform laws passed in Michigan have caused quite a stir around the state. The acts, Public Acts 131 and 132, limit state-funded cash-assistance for able-bodied people through the Family Independence Program (FIP) to 48 months, with some exceptions. The reform does not include cuts for food assistance, daycare or children's medical assistance. The Department of Human Services also eliminated the “hardship exemption” under the Federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant. The new law will reduce the number of children and adults receiving cash assistance by nearly one-fifth, from more than 221,000 to around 180,000, effecting about 12,600 families.
Proponents of the bill believe that the reform will encourage recipients to find a job to support their families instead of relying on state aid. Governor Snyder stated, “we are returning cash assistance to its original intent as a transitional program to help families while they work toward self-sufficiency.”
State Representative Ken Horn, the author of the bill, believes it will motivate people to get back to work, "People begin to get serious about looking for work roughly two weeks out of losing their check entirely."
Advocates say the cuts would save the state $65 million in its 2012 budget year.
Maura Corrigan, the director for the Department of Human Services, said the majority of those affected by the limits are eligible for other forms of assistance, including food, medical and child care.
“These wrap-around services will provide a safety net while families chart their path toward self-sufficiency,” Corrigan said.
There are also exceptions to cash-assistance limitations for recipients who care for a disabled spouse or child, those who are 65 or older and do not qualify for Social Security benefits or the benefits are too low, or those involved in domestic violence situations that involve law enforcement also may be temporarily exempted. The law also allows families to earn more money on the job while still receiving benefits - the new limit is $1,164 a month, up from $814 a month.
"Michigan's food assistance program is an essential safety net for residents who are struggling to get by, and any abuse of the system means less help for the people who truly need it," stated State Representative Mark Ouimet. "These are common-sense measures that will ultimately allow the state to use taxpayer dollars more efficiently."
Advocates believe the bill is long overdue - Michigan was the last state in the country that had neither a time limit or a benefits limit.
Opponents of the bill believe that it will lead to increased impoverished conditions around the state, including a rise in the number of homeless.
Charlotte Watson, a single mother of four in Detroit who is facing the elimination of her cash benefit, says the bill paints a bleak future for her and her children, “At this point, I am thinking every day on where me and my children are going to live,” she said. “The biggest problem is there’s no work out there. I’ve tried everywhere. There really is nothing.”
Judy Putnam, spokesperson for the Michigan League for Human Services, elaborated on the problems with the new legislation saying, “The DHS has said it will pay for rental assistance for 2-3 months for a family that is looking for work. But we know that unemployment is 11.2 percent, and the cuts are taking place in very high unemployment, very high poverty areas. Unless a miracle happens by January we will just be pushing them out in the street in the dead of winter.
“They are cutting unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to 20; they are applying lifetime limits in the worst economy we have known in our lifetime; and they are now limiting food assistance by disqualifying people who have more than $15,000 in assets, including a car.”
The 48-month limit is the strictest in the midwest. According to the Detroit News, there are five-year limits in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin. Indiana has a two-year limit for adults—but none for children.
State Representative David Rutledge is also against the reforms, saying, "It is certainly no secret that I believe this change runs counter to the best interest of families with children in our community, and in our state as a whole.
“Particularly given the fact that Michigan is still recovering from an economic crisis, and statewide employment is stagnant, my fear is that this limit will only hurt those families already struggling to make ends meet.”
Others criticize the bill because the cuts do not fall evenly across the state. Of the state’s 83 counties, only four have a cut-off rate higher than the state average of 14 percent: Wayne at 20.9 percent; Genesee, 19.3 percent; Muskegon, 18.3 percent; and Saginaw, 14.7 percent. A Bridge Magazine analysis of Michigan Department of Human Services data found that poor, urban families are much more likely to be timed-out of benefits than families from counties with higher poverty rates.
Gilda Jacobs, president of the Michigan League for Human Services stated, “Most of these people are not in the back yards of the legislators. They’re coming from the urban areas.” Jacobs believes that the concentration of the chronic poor in a small portion of the state made it easier for legislators to vote for the reform.
Jacobs also said, “With unemployment at nearly 11 percent and half of jobless people looking for work for six months or longer, we know that jobs are not readily available to absorb nearly 41,000 people leaving the state’s cash assistance safety net.”
Putnam acknowledged, “It really feels like the victims of the recession are being blamed for the bad economy.”