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Cuts to welfare: What's the cost to children?

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This past year, the administration of Governor Rick Snyder put new restrictions on the time families can receive cash assistance. 15,000 families have been cut off from that part of welfare which generally is used to pay rent and utilities. Michigan Watch and the online magazine Bridge have spent the last year looking into the effectsof those policies. Those who’ve lost cash assistance say the state is forgetting about the children who are affected.

Like a lot of parents who depended on cash assistance, Erica Underwood is wondering what’s going to happen to her family since the state kicked her off that part of welfare.

“Not only do they take from adults, they took from thousands and thousands of children and I think that’s unfair.”

Underwood has three children. One of them is disabled. When I talked to her this summer, she’d learned she would not qualify for a hardship exemption what would have allowed her to continue to get cash assistance.

She couldn’t pay the rent or utilities. At that point, the landlord was being lenient, but she said, “What’s the good of the house if I can’t have the utilities on? And then, hey, if I’ve got a house without utilities, they’re going to come and take my children. Like I say, it’s a no win situation. What do they want us to do?”

The state wants people like Underwood to find jobs.

But many don’t have the work skills or education to get a job that will support their families.

Judy Putnam is with the Michigan League for Public Policy. She says children are being punished by an attitude that people on welfare are freeloaders.

“The average child on cash assistance the last time we saw a report on this was age seven. So, how many seven-year-old freeloaders are out there?”

Putnam says if the state’s year-long experiment to restrict cash assistance is intended to force parents into the workforce, the state should follow up and see if it works. So far, there is no follow-up.

“There’s really no evidence that this has been a policy that worked to help families. Until we see that, we’ve got to say that’s been a very bad move, ill-advised, harmful to families in Michigan.”

The anecdotal information the League and other advocates have gathered indicates many families are being split up, becoming homeless, sleeping on couches at relatives' homes.

But, the Snyder administration says the state cannot afford exemptions for hardship cases. It’s defending its policy in the Michigan Supreme Court.  

“The State of Michigan certainly has compassion for these families. But, there are many other more permanent programs that are available to them," said John Bursch. He’s Michigan’s Solicitor General, adding, "This is a temporary program. And, really, the judicial branch should not be second-guessing a policy to encourage more people to go on to these more permanent programs."

Advocates who filed the suit want the cash assistance benefits reinstated. They say the permanent programs Bursch is talking about are for the elderly, blind or disabled. It usually takes a couple of years to become enrolled and many find they are not eligible.

Terri Stangl is with the Michigan Center for Civil Justice. She says the idea that parents who've been kicked off cash assistance can just get a job and support their kids is not very realistic when you look at the unemployment rate in the state.

"And to say we're not going to give you a hand during that process because you don't have a job at the same time people with Master's degrees and higher education are not finding jobs either in this economy puts those families in a very difficult place."

Adding to the problem is the fact that, most of the time, job training or school ends when cash assistance ends.

Sameta Mitchell was taking GED classes while she was receiving cash assistance. When it was cut off, so was her opportunity to complete the coursework. She was sure she could find a job with the GED and get off welfare on her own. But now she doesn’t see a way to get there and support her children.

“You ain’t got no GED, they ain’t trying to hire you.  I asked for them to put me in a different program to help me, but they want you to help yourself. But, when you want to help yourself and you tell them what you need to help yourself, they still don’t want to help you. But they want you to still help yourself. I don’t get it.”

It will be hard to tell whether parents actually find jobs or whether the kids are better off. 

But, if cutting back welfare does not work, a generation of needy kids could end up being an even greater burden to the state in the long run.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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