Helping kids feel good about themselves

August 20, 2010
Photo of Judy Putnam

Judy Putnam

With the start of school just a few weeks away, many families are planning shopping trips to get the right outfits for that important first day of school.

Thanks to a state program, some 157,000 children in Michigan’s poorest families will be able to join the annual back-to-school shopping ritual.

Department of Human Services Director Ismael Ahmed announced Thursday that children in families receiving cash assistance (FIP grants) will receive $79 per child the first week of September for the children’s clothing allowance.

“It’s designed to help children feel good about themselves in going back to school,’’ Ahmed said at a press conference.

That is a little less than last year ($84 per child) but it will go a long way in buying shoes, underwear, and new or used clothes for the new school year.

The League has advocated for the clothing allowance for many years. We agree that all kids deserve a good start at the beginning of the school year. Many of us can recall the excitement that accompanied the new outfit, new shoes and a spanking new pack of Crayolas.  

It’s important that all children get to partake in that excitement, but it’s especially true for disadvantaged kids, who are at high risk of falling behind and dropping out.

As the Legislature and governor try to finalize the budget for the year starting Oct. 1, such items as the clothing allowance are in ongoing jeopardy. The governor called for unspecified cuts of $50 million in next year’s Department of Human Services budget to try and balance the budget. That came after the Legislature resisted her ideas for new revenue, including a reasonable plan to reduce the sales tax but expand it to services.

The state budget is a complicated document that’s developed in a complicated process but sometimes our choices become clear and simple, such as making sure that all kids have a good start and decent clothes as the new school year commences.

— Judy Putnam


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

A look back at the decade

January 6, 2010

Gongwer News Service recently asked the League to weigh in on the major changes to social services during the first decade of this century.

Here is what we compiled — 10 years condensed to less than 500 words.

The decade saw many more children, families and individuals in need of help in meeting basic needs – food, shelter, heat and clothing – as Michigan shed hundreds of thousands of jobs. The public safety net has been stretched to the breaking point in some places.

In the area of Medicaid, Michigan received many more federal dollars to pay for health care for low-income children, families and seniors. The portion paid by the federal government jumped from 55 percent in 2000 to 73 percent this fiscal year. There’s also been an incredible increase in recipients from just over 1 million a month in 2000 to 1.8 million in October 2009. Unfortunately, access to doctors is a problem.  Fewer and fewer doctors will accept a patient on Medicaid.

Until July when optional services were cut, Michigan held the line on providing optional Medicaid services (dental services were cut in 2003 but later restored) for adults. These are services that the state isn’t required to provide but are considered health essentials. They include dental, vision, hearing and podiatry.

Food Assistance, a federal program formerly known as food stamps, also has seen a very dramatic rise, nearly tripling over the decade, from 580,000 people a month in 2000 to 1.65 million in October 2009.

While Medicaid and food assistance spending has grown dramatically, caseloads for cash assistance have remained relatively flat over the decade.

In 2004, the Family Independence Agency was renamed the Department of Human Services by Gov. Jennifer Granholm. The Family Independence Program (a holdover FIA name from the administration of Gov. John Engler) served 206,000 people a month in 2000, rising to only 217,000 in October 2009, despite dramatically growing needs.

In this recession, only one third of children living in poverty got help from FIP. In previous recessions, two-thirds of children were helped by cash assistance. (For more on this, click here.)

Michigan has not changed its benefits or eligibility level, even to keep up with inflation, meaning you have to be poorer and poorer to qualify and the monthly grant covers less and less. The grant was increased by just $1 per person a month in 2008, the first increase in nearly two decades. (See League report on the eroding grant.)

If a mom with two kids on cash assistance gets a job, her grant will end once she earns $814 a month, even though that income will keep her at 44 percent below poverty.

Another major change in the decade was a 2006 law that put a lifetime, four-year time limit on cash assistance benefits. And DHS workers have watched caseloads grow dramatically to the point that waiting rooms and parking lots have become dangerous places for recipients and caseworkers alike.

In addition, Michigan hasn’t done what’s needed to help low-income adults acquire skills or gain additional education, though No Worker Left Behind has helped some workers and the Jobs, Education and Training program replaced the Work First program, recognizing the importance of education and training in addition to work experience.

— Michigan League for Human Services staff