Legislators question tougher welfare work-week rule

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Capital News Service
LANSING — Welfare issues of self-sufficiency and financial independence have led some legislators to question whether a new 40-hour work-week requirement will benefit families in the long run.
“There are too many societal costs for passing this bill,” said Rep. David Woodward, D-Royal Oak. “The children become the consequence because the parents are being forced out of the home.”
The new requirement is designed to help families gain self-empowerment by being thrust into the work force, according the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Shirley Johnson, R-Royal Oak. Before the new requirements, recipients could work no more than 30 hours a week or 20 hours for mothers with children under age 5.
Gov. John Engler, known for his major changes in welfare, called this measure “the latest step in welfare reform. Its message is clear: anyone who can work should, and those who can work full-time should.”
As a result of the “removed barriers to employment,” more than 300,000 Michigan families have been removed from welfare rolls, Engler said.
“Encouraging people to work is never a bad thing and it allows people to be financially independent,” said Matt Resch, Engler’s deputy press secretary. “Self-confidence cannot be underestimated.”
The potential long-term effects of the law are bothering some legislators. Rep. Paul Gieleghem, D-Clinton Township, believes an arbitrary increase in work hours is not the answer.
“If we really want to work towards helping people arrive at self-sufficiency then we must address the barriers that the families face.” Gieleghem said.
Transportation, education and child-care are some of the factors that Gieleghem argues should not be overlooked. “What are the long-term effects on the kids when the parent is out of the home for 50 to 60 hours a week? How will they be impacted?”
Overseeing the new provisions of the law is the Family Independence Agency. It evaluates the needs of each client and has the power to determine the number of hours a client can work per week.
“We definitely view this as a positive,” said FIA Assistant Communications Director Maureen Sorbet. “Our clients really wanted to get into the work force and now they have the opportunity to do so. To us, full time work equals independence.”
Stringent penalties and immediate sanctions are only a few of the provisions that the FIA sees as a way to promote cooperation with programs that are designed to help their clients. One such program is Work First, a newly required session for those clients the FIA deems able to work.
“We provide employment and training opportunities for those who receive cash assistance from the FIA,” said Mike Wurmlinger, departmental manager for welfare reform. “Our goal is to help recipients gain re-attachment to the labor force.”
Benefits could be terminated immediately if a recipient does not comply with FIA requirements, a provision that has been scrutinized for denying money for the very people who need it most.
Before the most recent welfare reform, sanction rules stated that grants would be reduced by 25 percent each month for four months if a recipient fails to comply with job training requirements. Under the new rules, recipients have a 10-day period in which they must give the FIA “good cause” for non-compliance or benefits will be denied for 30 days.
“The criticism is misplaced,” said Bill Kordenbrock, legislative liaison to the FIA. “This is the exact time we need to be doing something like this. The opportunities give them the tools they need to be independent.”
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism

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