Last week I attended a press conference that launched a statewide campaign to combat myths about welfare in Michigan. The campaign is led by the Michigan Department of Human Services and is intended to reduce the widespread negative misperceptions about the welfare system and those who receive assistance.
Given Michigan’s wretched economy, it should be a no-brainer that lots of folks in this state are in need of assistance right now. Nevertheless, the stereotypes that have persisted over the more that three decades that I’ve been involved in this issue, are still widely held today.
It wasn’t always so. When the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was created in the 1940s it was viewed as a humane and just way to ensure that widows and their children were not destitute after the husband and father died. Somewhere along the way, attitudes changed as the divorce rate rose and poor women without earnings could not support their children.
At the press conference various speakers talked about how Michigan’s cash assistance and other programs help families meet their basic needs, how the dollars from this program are spent in local communities and help to maintain jobs, and how even the small amount of fraud (yes, it is small) that occurs in the program is aggressively investigated. The speakers also expressed concern that the public’s negative views of our assistance programs create a powerful stigma that prevents people in need from seeking help.
What wasn’t said at the press conference is that these negative perceptions are not just alive and well with the general public, but with our elected officials as well. That’s why a mom with two children must be 44 percent below the federal poverty level to qualify for cash assistance. That’s why the maximum cash assistance grant for this mom and her children is a meager $492 per month—66 percent below the poverty level. That’s why less than one-third of children in poverty in Michigan are covered by our cash assistance program today, compared with more than two-thirds during the period from 1979 to 1996.
Heaven forbid that we would have done something to strengthen our safety net when the state had the resources. Yes, we need to educate the public about welfare and encourage people who need help to come forward. I just wish we had more to offer in the way of a safety net during these extremely difficult times.
— Sharon Parks