Congress has chance to help Michigan families

September 14, 2010

Congress is returning from its Labor Day break this week with a number of key issues before it. In the coming days, Congress will make decisions on tax credits, child nutrition and cash assistance for needy families—votes that will directly impact families in Michigan.

In the midst of mid-term elections, the issue of which tax credits should be extended is receiving a great deal of attention. There are two tax credits directed at low- and middle-income families that were expanded under the Recovery Act to provide further tax relief.  

Without action by Congress to extend these tax credits, many families in Michigan will receive smaller refunds during these difficult economic times.

Twenty-five organizations here in Michigan have called on our congressional delegation to extend the Recovery Act changes to the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit. Making these credits permanent will encourage work and will help low- and middle-income families.

The U.S. House is also facing a vote on Child Nutrition Reauthorization.   A bill pending before the House includes many important improvements to food programs for our children. These programs are a critical part of the safety net and provide vital resources to address child hunger.

A letter sent by 15 Michigan children’s advocates organizations calls on House members to support the House version of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization. The ill-advised Senate version funds the Child Nutrition Reauthorization with a future cut in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to low-income households. Raiding one food assistance program to fund another is not acceptable.

The Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) Emergency Fund was created in 2009 as part of the Recovery Act. It has provided additional support to families here in Michigan during these challenging economic times. The fund, and its benefits, will expire at the end of September without action by Congress.

Understanding the ongoing need for the TANF Emergency Fund here in Michigan, 44 organizations have called on our Senators and our House members to extend this fund and its critically important benefits.

In the coming month, in particular, we will be looking to the Michigan Congressional Delegation to support policy and programs that will continue to assist Michigan families and will also help local and state economies.

— Karen Holcomb-Merrill

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Recovery Act’s life line in Michigan

July 1, 2010

Karen Holcomb-Merrill

New numbers show what an impact Recovery Act unemployment and food stamp benefits have had here in Michigan.  These numbers are particularly timely as unemployment and food assistance have been in the news.

There has been a lot of discussion, and concern, about unemployment benefits running out for 87,000 people in Michigan because Congress failed to extend them before the Fourth of July break.  Recovery Act dollars have played a significant role in providing these benefits during a time of very high unemployment.

According to estimates from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, unemployed workers in Michigan received over $1.9 billion in extended unemployment benefits, through May 28 of this year.  Also, unemployed workers received an additional $25 a week through the Recovery Act, totaling almost $700 million, up to May 28.

The League’s Economic Security Bulletin  reported this week that Food Assistance caseloads topped 850,000 for the first quarter of 2010.  That number is a 27 percent increase over the same quarter in 2009.  Almost 18 percent of Michigan residents live in households receiving Food Assistance. 

Like unemployment benefits, food assistance benefits provided through the Recovery Act helped sustain Michigan families during rough economic times.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that people in Michigan received almost $500 million in additional Recovery Act food assistance benefits through May 28.

Not only have these benefits helped families, but they have helped the Michigan economy as well.  It is well known that these benefits are quickly spent in local communities on food and other essentials. 

To keep this economic stimulus flowing in Michigan, Congress needs to act to extend unemployment benefits. The Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency projects that more than 400,000 jobless workers will run out of benefits by the end of the year without that action.

Members of Congress will be home for the Fourth of July holiday, so if you have a chance, please let them know the importance of supporting extended unemployment benefits.

— Karen Holcomb-Merrill


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


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