State government unraveling?

July 6, 2010

Sharon Parks

State government is unraveling.  At least that was my impression after reading the subscriber-only Gongwer News Service report from Friday.  The newsletter included an extensive piece about Michigan’s progress under a court settlement related to foster care.

According to the article, the most recent official report on the lawsuit settlement stated, “thousands of children continue to linger in care without permanent families; too many youth continue to age out of care without health care or a permanent home; and too many children remain in unlicensed relative homes.”

The report said the Department of Human Services did not have enough staff to meet the caseload ratio standards required in the 2008 settlement.

A veteran child protective services worker told Gongwer that workers are “so stressed they regularly have breakdowns and you find them crying in the bathroom.”  Low job satisfaction has resulted in increased leaves for stress and higher turnover rates, which were already high prior to the lawsuit.

The Granholm administration has attempted to address this problem by recommending the restoration of 197 staff positions cut last year, the addition of 500 new staff and retaining the temporary staff brought in to help meet the requirements of the lawsuit.  Unfortunately the Department of Human Services Senate Appropriations Subcommittee is only willing to commit to 151 new child protective services workers.

Foster care is not the only area in which the Department of Human Services is not keeping up.  Another article in the same Gongwer issue notes that the average eligibility specialist carries a caseload of 700, again leading to burnout and frustration on the part of workers and clients.  Safety in local DHS office continues to be a concern yet DHS officials, according to Gongwer, say staffing increases are not likely since funds for staffing are stagnant.

There’s more…..A third article reports that financial audits released by the Auditor General show that several departments need to improve their internal controls to ensure they are correctly monitoring spending.  The Department of Natural Resources needs to properly account for and process reservation fees from state parks and forests.  The Department of Education was urged to take steps to protect its security and financial data, and to periodically monitor its internal controls over financial issues.  The State Police was urged to improve its internal controls over payroll processing.

These three articles all point to an increasingly common theme throughout state government—not enough workers to do the work, at least not in a way that ensures safety and well-being, as well as accountability for public tax dollars.

Just something to think about as another state retirement plan is discussed and candidates on the campaign trail promise smaller government.

— Sharon Parks


Busting welfare myths

April 5, 2010

Sharon Parks

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

Food assistance: a silver lining

March 30, 2010

Peter Ruark

While cleaning my office not long ago, I found a newsletter from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities titled “What’s Behind Dramatic Food Stamp Declines?”

A rather startling question to read, since for much of the past few years I’ve been writing about dramatic Food Assistance increases in Michigan.

The newsletter was dated Fall 1999, when Michigan had an October-December average of 257,748 Food Stamp cases. Slightly more than 10 years later, the Department of Human Services has reported a caseload of 848,429 for February 2010—an increase of 229 percent. (Check out this jaw-dropping chart on Michigan Food Assistance cases since 1979.)

This past February, approximately 17 percent of Michigan’s population lived in a household receiving Food Assistance. Of course, much of the increase in recent years is due to our state’s dire economic situation, but Michigan also deserves a lot of credit for actively promoting Food Assistance to families and individuals who qualify.

Food Assistance dollars are 100 percent federal, and those dollars support local grocers as well as freeing up money in low-income families’ budgets for other needs. In other words, an increasing caseload costs the state nothing while acting as a federal stimulus to local economies.

What is more, the Department of Human Services has just announced that it has successfully leveraged federal dollars to give approximately 180,000 Food Assistance households an extra $88 per month of benefits. More help to struggling families, more boost to local grocery stores, at no cost to Michigan.

We all hope for a day when Michigan’s economy will be strong again, and fewer struggling families will need public assistance. But for now, we should appreciate the fact that Michigan has made it much easier to receive federally funded Food Assistance.

As far as poor, low-income, or temporarily struggling Michigan residents are concerned, that’s one thing going on in Michigan that we can be happy about.

— Peter Ruark

Digging for backyard data

March 16, 2010

Judy Putnam

The League has just posted a new tool that we hope will be helpful to those looking for county-level information on a host of subjects.

We’re calling it the Michigan League for Human Services Guide to Data in Your Back Yard.

The map-based tool allows a user to find information on a range of subjects in one place.

Those include:

  • Kids Count rankings
  • Basic county information
  • Food assistance caseloads
  • Medicaid caseloads
  • Unemployment trends
  • Social services spending

To use, go to the blue map, hover your computer mouse over a county and click if it’s the county you want. It will take you to a series of links.

Those links will give you county Kids Count profile and Kids Count background sheets, the county profile of Tax Dollars at Work, the latest Economic Security bulletin that tracks economic trends by county, and the Department of Human Services latest county-by-county report on caseloads.

Please let us know if this is helpful to you. The tool was created by longtime League staffer Tillie Kucharek, who does publication design, Web updates and Kids Count charts among other duties.

— Judy Putnam

Adult services workers stretched thin

March 11, 2010

Judy Putnam

A rash of news stories about frustrated and angry people seeking help from understaffed state human services offices has revealed to us the strain of too few resources and too many people in need of help.

And a lawsuit over inadequate care for abused and neglected children in Michigan has forced new investments in the child welfare system.

But another story – this one of staff who investigate complaints of adult abuse, neglect and exploitation and who offer independent living help for elderly adults and those adults with disabilities  – was given by the Department of Human Services with pie charts and line graphs at a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Human Services earlier this week.

The bottom line is this: The 2002 early-out incentives for state employees permanently reduced the staff available to look out for the frail elderly and other vulnerable adults. (The department lost 2,800 experienced workers in that retirement wave.)

During that wave of retirements, the decision was made by the Engler administration to replace any worker dealing with children, but none of those workers dealing with adults.

The upshot? Michigan has 328 adult services workers, down from 541 adult services workers in 2000. That means caseloads have risen in the Independent Living Services program from 73 cases per worker to 175 cases per worker. Clients used to get four visits from a worker; that’s been cut to two.

Forty-three counties have just one worker and 22 counties have two workers.

Perhaps the most revealing statistic was this: Despite rising referrals of complaints of adults who have been abused or neglected (often by the very people who are entrusted with their care) the number of confirmed instances of mistreatment of vulnerable adults has held steady at around 9,500 per year.

The caseload for Adult Protective Services is 38 per worker; above the national average of 25 cases per worker, the committee was told.

Unfortunately the need for investigations into complaints of elder abuse will only grow as Michigan’s population ages.

Let’s face it – as with caregivers of children, those who live with frail adults are often stressed to the maximum and lash out at very vulnerable people. And as with our children, we must offer protection to those who are unable to protect themselves.

The PowerPoint given by the department ended with a quote from Pearl Buck: “Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.’’

— Judy Putnam