A group of welfare clients filed a lawsuit today that seeks to block a new limit on state cash assistance payments. The federal lawsuit asks a judge to block the new 48-month limit on cash assistance payments. Otherwise, thousands of Michigan families will lose state cash assistance welfare payments this weekend. It will also become harder for people to qualify for food assistance. This is the start of a sweeping makeover of public assistance for people in Michigan who have fallen on hard times.
Thousands To Lose Cash Assistance
October 1st marks the beginning of the state's fiscal year and, with it, the state Department of Human Services will immediately close the files on 12,300 cash assistance cases. The program helps families with children or pregnant women with living expenses such as rent, utilities, food and clothing.
A total of 41,000 people will lose benefits. About 30,000 are children. The only exceptions to the four-year limit are for people who are disabled and their caretakers.
"We're really trying to get back to old-fashioned social work to help people in difficult parts of their lives get to a point where they can be self-sufficient," says Brian Rooney, a deputy director at the state Department of Human Services. He says families who lose benefits may still qualify for help with their rent, and the state is trying to connect as many as possible with private agencies and help finding jobs.
"The outreach that we have done with our community partners, different faith-based organizations, volunteers to try to provide as soft a landing as we can for people coming off of long-term cash assistance is unprecedented, really," he says.
But Gilda Jacobs says the state's timing could not be worse. She is the president of the Michigan League for Human Services.
"It's been one assault after another on low-income and unemployed people in the state," she says.
More than one-in-10 Michiganders is officially unemployed. Twice that many are not counted in that number because they are under-employed or have given up looking for work. Half of the unemployed in Michigan have been looking for a job for six months or more.
New Rules For Food Assistance
In addition to the new limits on cash assistance, the state will require people who receive food assistance, Bridge cards, to list their assets. People with $5,000 dollars or more in savings or non-retirement investments, or a personal car with a market value of 15,000 dollars or more will be cut off.
That will be a change for Jim Alfredson, a self-employed musician, music teacher, and piano tuner. He's married, the father of three young daughters. He says every part of his business has slowed down as the economy's grown worse. Alfredson says he's grateful for food assistance, which some months is a quarter of his household income.
"We appreciate it because it's the one thing that's constant in what I do," he says. "Every month is different. Some months are great. Some months are really bad. But we know that at the very least we can afford groceries."
But his family was told that, as of October first, they are no longer eligible for benefits based on the value of two cars. Both are used as family and business vehicles. Alfredson says food assistance helps to keep families like his in the middle class.
"It seems like a lot of the families that we know are in the same situation," he says. "The situation looks good on the outside, but they're just one transmission failure away from bankruptcy."
This Weekend Is Just The Beginning
"There is a big storm coming," says Scott Dzurka, with the United Way of Michigan. He says the state and not-for-profit groups are trying to plot a new course for public assistance in Michigan. But Dzurka says that's a big job. The people losing benefits this weekend, he says, are just the first wave of people who will be looking elsewhere for help when the state cuts them off.
"This population that rolls off in October, while significant, we're also going to continue to also continue see month by month more of that population roll off of their benefits, so we're going to continue to see this for some time," he says.
Dzurka says the next big challenge will come in January, when a new wave of thousands of long-term unemployed people will need help after they lose their extended jobless benefits.