Welfare reform is bad business for communities

August 29, 2011
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During the second week of August, the Michigan Department of Human Services sent letters to thousands of families with children, forever canceling their cash assistance allowance effective Oct. 1. Their crime is that they are poor and have received a cash assistance check of $10 or more for 60 months or more during their lifetime.

This action will allegedly “save” the Michigan and federal governments $77 million and place the responsibility for caring for these families on the counties and local communities.

This action creates several problems within local communities:

  • Who is going to handle the fallout from the state’s action? The local communities are not equipped with money, staff, organization, experience or commitment. Kent County is estimated to have 750 or more of these families.

  • Who will pay the landlords, utility companies and merchants who provide the goods and services these families utilize? Welfare cash is usually in the hands of services providers within 24 hours of receipt.

  • Where are all these jobs at which the governor and the legislators expect these people to work? Even in a time of low unemployment, many of these parents lack the job skills or education required to find jobs. Some may have jail or prison records or have medical or mental limitations and would usually not be hired even if they apply for available jobs. There are legitimate reasons people have been on assistance for 60 months or more and no one — not the governor, the legislature or the Michigan Department of Human Services — has looked at what they need to survive outside the system.

  • Where do local communities get the money and the resources to keep this action from exploding into severe hardship or community unrest? Who is responsible for these neighbors, relatives and acquaintances, some of whom may have used bad judgment that got them onto welfare but who have no resources if they get off? Who will help these families survive the trauma of homelessness, unpaid bills, changing schools?

  • Who has looked at who these people are? Because of the stereotypes that cast these families as lazy, cheaters or ingrates, few people speak out on their behalf. The Legislature is trying to balance the state budget on the backs of the poor because they can, and this group is least likely to fight back.

How did these problems develop? Federal law permits states to establish time limits on the receipt of cash welfare benefits. It was the intent of this law that the state work with these people to help them gain skills and get jobs. It didn’t take into consideration the recession, high unemployment and the inability of some people to gain skills or work. Nor did welfare assistance in Michigan ever provide the caseworkers to help deal with the underlying problems that often existed for these families. Welfare assistance has been simply a matter of financial eligibility. Past administrations in Michigan, for these and other reasons, were unsuccessful in helping these people off welfare. This administration chose to cut them all off but failed to consider the consequences.

What can we do about it? The best answer would be for the state to rescind its action and approach welfare reform in a businesslike way by analyzing each family’s employability possibilities. Those judged employable should be offered jobs or work training slots of the Job Corps type. They might be encouraged to take training if it led to real jobs. I do not believe that people are entitled to cash assistance with no conditions; with few exceptions, they should be available every day for work or training. The penalty for nonparticipation would be case closure. Those judged to be unemployable should have help to become contributing members of society.

It appears this administration has chosen to dump the responsibility for these families on local communities. That, according to Michigan Public Act 280 of 1939, would mean the county boards of commissioners would have to ensure a local plan be quickly developed. Each county has a three-person Human Service Board, two of whom are appointed by commissioners and one by the governor, that could lead this effort. They have the power to gather facts, hold public hearings, oversee projects, coordinate the efforts of public and private agencies, and provide other efforts as directed by the board of commissioners.

Local governments have never before dealt with an emergency this large. Kent is the only county in Michigan with an Essential (Emergency) Needs Task Force which operates on behalf of the county board of commissioners and the city of Grand Rapids. The Kent County Human Service Board provides the administration with staff support from United Way. Staff are currently meeting but to date have not received help from the state in the form of names, grant amounts or details on the criteria being used to keep families with disabled children active. The other 82 counties will have to start from scratch.

The community must get involved. Human services agencies, churches and members of each community must speak out on the moral issues involved. Welfare was designed as an efficient way to protect poor people, not to punish them.

There is obviously a need for welfare reform in Michigan. However, automatic and permanent denial makes no moral or business sense when factors such as high unemployment, low high school graduation rates and limited job skills combine with discouragement and despair.

Arbitrary cutoff based on time spent on welfare is not fair or constructive and does not serve the state well. Clear expectations requiring adults to participate in training, work projects, internships and other activities leading to independence of the system is legitimate. Failure to comply would lead to case closure. Let’s make a rehabilitative system, not a punitive one.

Evert W. Vermeer has spent 49 years in public welfare and for 25 years was director of Human Services in Kent County. He recently retired from the board of directors of the Michigan County Social Services Association after 30 years.

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