Work-for-welfare push on in Michigan

Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan’s economy, on a slow upswing since the Great Recession, has recovered enough so the state is moving to reinstate stricter work requirements for recipients of federal food assistance.

The waiver of a three-month limit on some benefits for unemployed persons is being phased out.

In 2002, Michigan opted in to a federal waiver allowing states with high unemployment or low job availability to remove work requirements for able-bodied individuals without dependents.

Previously, they could receive benefits only through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program for up to three months every three years without meeting work requirements. The waiver eliminated the three-month limit, effectively allowing those without a job to receive assistance indefinitely.

Michigan used to have a statewide waiver of the federal requirements during the height of the economic downturn, according to Bob Wheaton, a public information officer for the Department of Health and Human Services. However, the state moved to “phase out” the waiver program by moving to a partial waiver last year.

“There have been significant improvements in the unemployment rate in Michigan over the last several years,” Wheaton said. “As a result, people who are trying to reenter the workforce, such as these individuals who were receiving the waiver, now have more job opportunities.”

Michigan is one of 28 states receiving a partial waiver, meaning the indefinite grace period for unemployed SNAP recipients will be revoked in counties with economic improvement but not in those that continue to struggle.

Fourteen of the 83 counties have reinstated the three-month time limit so far. Ionia, Allegan and Grand Traverse counties are among the 10 that have done so in 2018. Work requirements were reinstated in 2017 for Kent, Oakland, Ottawa and Washtenaw counties.

To continue receiving benefits, SNAP recipients in those counties must work an average of 20 hours per week each month or participate in an average of 20 hours per week in an approved training program.

Wheaton said that while there is no concrete time limit on phasing out the waiver entirely, it’s the department’s goal to reinstate work requirements in all counties by October.

The department is prepared to help individuals meet the work requirements and “become self-sufficient so they can be in a situation where, once their food assistance expires, they’re able to support themselves by working,” Wheaton said.

As the current waiver is phased out, some legislators are pushing to prevent future waivers.

A bill introduced by Rep. Kimberly LaSata, R-Bainbridge Township, would do just that, as well as create an “identity authentication process” for welfare applicants to prevent fraud. The bill is pending in the House Appropriations Committee.

Cosponsors include GOP Reps. Triston Cole of Mancelona, Roger Victory of Hudsonville and Jim Lilly of Park Township.

LaSata said the bill is intended to empower Michiganders to seek employment. She said the waiver was for individuals who would seemingly face the least obstacles towards returning to the workplace.

“You’re 18 to 49, you’re healthy, you have no dependents,” LaSata said. “Women that do have dependents have a work requirement.

“There’s really no reason for anyone to be against this,” she said.

But the move to prevent Michigan from receiving future work-requirement waivers is “foolish and self-defeating,” according to Peter Ruark, a senior policy analyst for the Michigan League for Public Policy. The organization describes itself as a policy institute “dedicated to economic opportunity.”

He said while he believes Health and Human Services is “acting in good faith” by moving to phase out the waiver as the state’s economy improves, there’s no reason to prevent future waivers in the event of another recession.

“One thing Michigan absolutely should not be doing is tying its own hands on this,” Ruark said.

Ruark also disagreed with the use of county-wide unemployment rates as a measure of an area’s economic health. Using Oakland County as an example, he said that although unemployment rates indicate the county was recovering, Pontiac — its largest city — still faces troubles that could suggest a need for a waiver.

“There are still pockets of economic hardship, even in those counties that appear to be doing well according to the countywide unemployment rate,” Ruark said.

James Hohman, director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said unemployment rates are “a good proxy” for the health of the labor market but don’t tell the full story. The center is a free market-oriented think tank in Midland.

Michigan’s labor force has been growing, which has raised the unemployment rate but indicates a larger pool of talent, Hohman said.

“Even though it’s giving a contrary sign, it’s been good news for the state of Michigan,” he said.

Reinstating SNAP work requirements is far from the only way Michigan policymakers have sought to restrict welfare benefits in recent years.

For example, Sen. Joe Hune, R-Gregory, sponsored a 2014 law adding community service to the list of work requirements.

“This common-sense reform will ensure that those benefiting from public assistance are giving back to the community that is providing them with a helping hand,” Hune saide. “There is nothing wrong with folks having a little skin in the game.”

The community service option has no minimum hours requirement, and caseworkers approach each case individually, according to Wheaton of Health and Human Services..

In addition to the law sponsored by Hune, bills signed into law include cutting off payments to families with chronically truant children and testing recipients for drugs.