Last week, while working on a documentary about hunger in Michigan, Russ Russell had an experience that left him speechless.
“I was visiting with this family and one of the little boys said he wasn’t going to eat,” said Russell, development director for Forgotten Harvest, a Detroit-based nonprofit that rescues and redistributes fresh food. “He said, ‘Oh, I’m not eating dinner because it’s my brother’s turn tonight. Tomorrow is my night.’”
On Wednesday, state officials charged with helping to meet the needs of Michigan’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens publicly told a much different story. Maura Corrigan, director of Michigan’s Department of Human Services, assured lawmakers that changes to a core social safety-net program -- cash welfare assistance -- aren’t producing the kind of wide-scale woe critics predicted.
"There hasn't been an uptick in the food banks; there hasn't been an uptick in the homeless shelters," Corrigan told the state’s House Appropriations subcommittee on human services, the Detroit Free Press reported Thursday. "It's a dog that didn't bite, as far as we're concerned."
Three months after implementing a plan to push many long-term welfare recipients off the state’s rolls, Michigan is deeply divided about its impact. It’s as if Russell and Corrigan are talking about different states.
Michigan's poorest are clearly in need. About 9.3 percent of the workforce -- more than 430,000 people, are unemployed, according to federal
data. In Detroit, 67 percent of the city’s children –- more than any other city in the nation -- live in concentrated poverty, according to a report released Thursday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based nonprofit research organization that advocates for poor children’s interests.
“You have to wonder if they are asking the right questions, really looking in the right places or if it’s just too early for the problems to show clearly,” said Gilda Jacobs, president and CEO of the Michigan League for Human Services, about Corrigan’s testimony and the impact of the changes to the welfare rolls. "I'm certainly hearing stories."
Food banks and other agencies that help the needy are reporting a rise in those seeking help. Some of the more than 200 agencies to which Forgotten Harvest, a nonprofit that distributes fresh food, now have 30- to 45-day wait-lists for access to their food programs, Russell said. Forgotten Harvest provided the food for 12 million meals in 2008; if trends from the first two months of this year continue, the agency expects it will need to provide 36- to 40 million meals.
At the Gleaner’s Community Food Bank in Detroit, the agency distributed 22 percent more food between October and January than it did during the same period one year ago, staff said. But it’s unclear how much of the increase can be attributed to safety net program cuts.
The Michigan legislature voted last year on cuts to the welfare program, which is funded by a mix of state and federal money. Facing a huge budget deficit, it opted to cut off welfare recipients after four years. The change was designed to make the program more of a temporary safety net that does not deter self-sufficiency, said David Akerly, a Michigan Department of Human Services spokesman.
The previous limit was five years, but some families removed from the rolls had been on public assistance for a decade, the Detroit Free Press reported. The program had included exemptions for recipients trying to escape violent relationships, and those with disabilities, severely ill children and other challenges.
After the time-limit change, some exemptions were left in place. This allowed about 10,000 long-term recipients to stay on the rolls, but Michigan officials did reject every appeal that came in from households pushed out of the program, state officials told The Huffington Post Detroit this month.
The changes left about 11,000 households ineligible for the program. Since December, another 4,099 have also been disqualified. There are 60,551 households receiving cash aid.
Corrigan reached her conclusions after she and other staff contacted non-governmental social services providers, said Akerly. Enrollment in other government programs including Medicaid, food stamps and the state's disability program have, on average, declined, Akerly said, and together this indicates that there has not been a surge in need.
Corrigan’s testimony suggested that many of the families pushed off the rolls have under-the-table income.
"This is the vulnerable against the gamers. We have a fair number of people gaming the system. The gamers take away resources from the truly vulnerable," the Detroit Free Press quoted Corrigan.
Corrigan reached this conclusion because only about 10 percent of the people removed from the program have applied for rental or mortgage assistance, Akerly said.
Corrigan is also regarded as an expert on the underground, and barter and trade economy, he said. She helped to generate a report for Michigan on the issue and has recently been contacted by New York City officials for related information.
The state's claim that need is declining or a raft of program cheats have been exposed may appear true when you look at certain data, such as food stamp program enrollment, but only because Michigan is also pushing people out of that program, said Gilda Jacobs, president and CEO of the Michigan League for Human Services.
Michigan is not alone in the decision to roll back cash assistance during a period of elevated unemployment and need. Arizona, California, Maine and Washington also decreased welfare time limits in 2011, said LaDonna Pavetti, vice president for Family Income Support Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The center is a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. California is contemplating additional cuts this year.
Families that remain on welfare after five years often include adults with mental health problems, physical or cognitive disabilities, very limited English proficiency or education, Pavetti said. These are significant barriers to getting and keeping a job, she said.
In 2006, Pavetti studied the lives of long-term welfare recipients on the verge of being removed from Minnesota’s program. Many of the women she studied had worked physically demanding jobs or endured some sort of severe abuse while young. These women sustained serious physical damage, and had limited or nonexistent health care by the time they hit middle age, but they did not have the education or skills to do different types of work. Pavetti met a woman with such severe, untreated anxiety that she had open sores all over her scalp and another woman who got around her house on all fours.
Both of these women were expected to find work.
"There's very little reason to believe that the situation in Detroit is vastly different," Pavetti said.
Michigan does provide welfare recipients with access to GED programs.