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


It’s only a start

July 21, 2010

Peter Ruark

We can celebrate. Yesterday, the U.S. Senate voted to override a filibuster blocking a bill that continues making Emergency Unemployment Compensation available for workers who have exhausted their Unemployment Insurance (UI) but have still not found a job. This vote will prevent more than 130,000 Michigan workers from prematurely losing their UI benefits. 

However, the vote does not restore the Federal Additional Compensation (FAC) that added $25 per week to the UI benefits for Michigan workers. This additional money has helped unemployed families fill their gas tanks, pay their utilities and buy household necessities, and by the end of May 2010 added $669 million to Michigan’s economy.

Michigan’s average UI benefit during this past April would normally have been $301 per week, but with the FAC it was $326 per week. The maximum weekly benefit in Michigan has been $387 as opposed to $362 without the additional compensation. 

The vote also does not include the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) subsidy for health insurance for laid-off workers. This assistance helped roughly 83,000 Michigan households between the beginning of 2009 and the first few months of 2010.

Without the subsidy, many unemployed workers will see steep increases in their health insurance costs.

Two sources of federal aid to states to help with public assistance costs have also not been extended yet. One is the enhanced Federal Medical Assistance Percentages, which provided additional match dollars to help states pay for their Medicaid programs. The other is the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Emergency Fund, which provides federal dollars to temporarily subsidize jobs for people who are leaving (or are in danger of having to seek) public cash assistance. According to the Center for Law and Social Policy, this program could create nearly 200,000 jobs nationally by September, at which time it will expire at the end of September if Congress does not renew its funding.

So, we can uncork the champagne and celebrate the fact that Congress finally voted to allow long-term unemployed workers to continue receiving unemployment insurance benefits. But Congress still needs to continue the COBRA subsidy, the enhanced federal Medicaid match, and the job creation subsidies. And it would be nice if our unemployed workers could have that extra $25 per week of help as they look for other employment.

— Peter Ruark

Ouch! Survey results pinch

June 17, 2010

Judy Putnam

A recently released survey of local Michigan officials has a depressing finding: Only 1 percent of local officials think the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has helped improve local economic conditions “very much.” Two out of every three say it has not helped at all to date, and more than half predict it won’t help at all over the long term.

Ouch! That’s a blow for those of us who have been advocating for extending vital features of the ARRA. (Those include extending the enhanced federal Medicaid match that will offer more than $500 million for next year’s state budget, Earned Income Tax Credit expansions, Child Tax Credit to benefit working poor families of nearly 600,000 kids in Michigan and 99 weeks of unemployment benefits for the state’s long-term unemployed.)

ARRA has poured critical dollars into our state at a critical time. Few of those dollars, however, went directly to local governments, a fact pointed out by the Michigan Municipal League in a well-publicized letter to Vice President Biden last year. Local governments struggle with the double whammy of sharply reduced revenue sharing from the state and declining property values, causing layoffs of public safety workers and other hardships.

But the Recovery Act money has flowed to many people in the communities: the unemployed, households on food assistance, those on Social Security and taxpayers. It is credited with saving an estimated 12,000 jobs in Michigan, most of them in education.  That help doesn’t go into a black hole — those are dollars that are quickly circulated in local economies.

The survey of more than 1,000 local officials was completed last fall. Perhaps, with time, more will see the benefit to their communities in projects such as weatherization.

Without doubt, the ARRA has paid off for local communities, even as tough times continue. What’s hard to imagine is how much worse it would be without the Recovery Act.

Michigan needed the Recovery Act in 2009. It needs it now – it’s important that Congress votes to extend the enhanced Medicaid match, EITC expansions, unemployment benefits and the Child Tax credit.

— Judy Putnam

House reports healthier budget

May 26, 2010

Jan Hudson

On Tuesday the House Appropriations Committee reported its recommended budget for the Department of Community Health to the full House. While the recommendation isn’t great, it is far superior to that passed by the Senate.

The House budget is about $103 million in general fund more than the Senate and avoids many of the most onerous cuts in the Senate-passed budget including: a cut of $57.5 million to non-Medicaid mental health funding (House reduction is $3.8 million); the elimination of some caretaker relatives and 19- and 20-year-olds from Medicaid; a 4 percent additional rate reduction to some physicians; and more cuts to the Healthy Michigan Fund, to name a few.

It will be a major challenge to maintain the House level of funding in view of the Revenue Estimating Conference that identified a $244 million revenue shortfall for the current year and about a $1 billion shortfall for FY2011.

Will policymakers find the courage to step forward and recommend revenue solutions to these problems rather than continuing their “cuts-only” approach?

I keep wondering: Do the facts really matter? A recent report by the Senate Fiscal Agency once again documents that Michigan is not a high-tax state. Will that fact matter to the Senate leadership? Or, will leaders continue to balance the budget on the backs of Michigan’s low-income families, children, elderly and disabled?

The cuts in Medicaid eligibility recommended by the Senate will not be possible under federal health reform maintenance of effort provisions, and with this knowledge, the House rejected the Senate proposal. This is good news for the “optional groups” whose Medicaid coverage was recommended for elimination. A report recently released by the League documents that the state has made little, if any, progress in adequately funding the Medicaid program over the last six years.

Without the federal recovery funds, and the corresponding maintenance of effort on eligibility over the last three years, it is difficult to say what the Medicaid program would look like today.

As it is, the state has enrolled about 420,000 more Medicaid-only recipients (those not receiving any cash assistance) since FY2005 and now, fortunately, can’t reduce eligibility without the loss of federal funds.

It is stunning to note the growth in the number of individuals who qualify only for Medicaid – – they receive no cash assistance. From fiscal years 2000 to 2009, that number nearly doubled, increasing from 652,000 to 1.2 million, as unemployment grew relentlessly and employer-sponsored coverage declined or became unaffordable. The number of Medicaid-only enrollees as of April 2010 is 1.4 million.

It is good news that both the Senate and House restored dental and podiatric services for adult Medicaid recipients; however, they could become targets to balance the budget given the new revenue projections.  Elimination of these services makes no fiscal or public policy sense particularly with the high incidence of diabetes in this state and the importance of these services in managing this disease.  Will that fact matter?

There is nothing wrong with raising the revenues to pay for the services Michigan residents want and need.  It does, however, take leadership and courage.

— Jan Hudson

Working poor tax cuts should be part of debate

February 22, 2010

Peter Ruark

Congress will be debating soon whether to extend the controversial tax cut packages passed in 2001 and 2003.

These tax cuts are widely blamed for the deficit that President Obama inherited when he took office last year and are seen as one of the principal causes of the current deficit. Equally controversial to the hole in the federal budget they created was the fact that most of the tax cuts were aimed at affluent Americans.

One provision in this package, however, has benefited many families who are lower on the income scale: the provision making the child tax credit partially refundable to families making over $10,000 (meaning that these families can receive a partial credit even if the credit amount exceeds the amount they owe in tax).

The child tax credit, which gives families a $1,000 credit per child up to two children and a partial credit for additional children, has seen two other improvements since then. The first improvement was in 2008, when the income eligibility threshold was lowered to $8,500 for that tax year. Then, in 2009, the Recovery Act lowered the threshold to $3,000, making the credit available to many very poor families who would have otherwise been ineligible.

As a result of the 2009 change, a family with two children is now able to receive the full credit when its earnings reach $16,333 (as opposed to $21,993 in 2008 and $23,333 in 2001).

A report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that families of 584,000 children in Michigan would lose all or part of their child tax credit if Congress renews the Bush tax cuts without extending the 2001 and 2009 child tax credit improvements. Nationally, families with incomes above $10,000 would bear 80 percent of the tax credit losses.

It would be unfair to extend tax credits for the wealthy without also extending one that benefits the poor. Not only that, it would be irrational in light of the current economic situation. Like the earned income tax credit, the child tax credit given to low-income working families tends to get spent in local businesses and thus act as a stimulus to local economies. The child tax credit expansion was included in the Recovery Act because it is one of the fastest ways to get additional money flowing through communities, helping to save and create jobs.  

Fortunately, the 2001 and 2009 improvements to the child tax credit are in the budget set out by President Obama and in legislation introduced by Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus. However, as we have painfully seen many times in recent years, the sausage-making that goes on as a bill winds its way through committees, debates, floor votes, and conferencing can often result in certain elements of the bill getting dropped.

We need to make sure Congress does not short-change low-income workers as it passes its budgets for the upcoming fiscal year, and the Michigan League for Human Services will keep you informed if any mischief occurs with this credit.

— Peter Ruark

Recovery Act’s big impact

February 17, 2010

Judy Putnam

Picture a large tanker headed to the shoals. It’s about to hit ground with deadly force, but just before the disastrous end, just barely in the nick of time, it starts to turn. It’s slow — it’s a big doggone boat after all — but it turns and begins to slowly head back to the ocean.

It’s easy to forget but the U.S. economy was headed to the shoals in late 2008. People talked about pulling their funds from their bank accounts. It was money-under-the mattress and cash-buried-in-the-yard-in-a-tin-can times and the specter of runs on the banks felt real.  My book club read The Grapes of Wrath and it no longer seemed like a long-ago story.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed by President Obama a year ago today, was the muscle that began to turn that tanker.

It’s slow and frustrating. But there’s plenty of evidence that the economy has tortuously turned and the ARRA gets credit. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the economy would have shed an additional 2.4 million jobs if not for ARRA.

For those of us in hard-hit Michigan, ARRA has been a lifeline. The Washington D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates these direct benefits to individuals in Michigan: 

  • A boost in the Food Assistance Program, adding $317 million to the state’s economy;
  • A $25 per week increase in unemployment benefits, injecting $514 million;
  • Additional weeks of unemployment benefits through the Extended Unemployment, a $1.7 billion addition;
  • A one-time $250 payment for Social Security and SSI recipients (and some others) for $471 million in benefits; and
  • The Making Work Pay tax credit, a $1.4 billion increase to families in Michigan.

 In addition to dollars flowing to individuals, the Michigan Department of Transportation reported that more than 750 road projects are completed or under way with ARRA money. The federal Recovery Act website reports that $6.5 billion has been paid out in various grants and contracts in Michigan so far. In all, ARRA is expected to send more than $15 billion to Michigan. 

It’s frightening to imagine where Michigan would be today without it.

Unemployment extension critical

February 8, 2010

Peter Ruark

Michigan has much to lose if Congress does not act quickly to renew the unemployment insurance (UI) extensions in last year’s economic stimulus bill. 

It is not just because Michigan has led the country in the unemployment rate for 33 out of the past 36 months.

In December, Michigan and the nation entered the 24th month since the beginning of the 2007 recession. As this chart shows,  this marks the first time Michigan had a higher unemployment rate during the current recession (14.6 percent) than it did during the same month relative to the 1981 recession (14.2 percent in July 1983).

The early 1980s are well known as Michigan’s toughest times, as unemployment topped 16 percent several months in a row.  However, during the 24th month of the 1981 recession, the unemployment rate was on a slow but consistent downward slope, while the unemployment rate in recent months has barely dropped at all.

Because many workers have been unemployed for a very long time despite faithfully looking for work, unemployment insurance has been a crucial safety net. Many long-term unemployed workers have exhausted their regular benefits, and are only continuing to receive unemployment insurance because of the extensions in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Those extensions, however, will expire at the end of February. Without congressional reauthorization, unemployed workers who have not used up all their weeks of unemployment insurance will lose those unused weeks and will be left without any UI at all. 

New numbers released last week from the National Employment Law Project  show that without Congressional action, nearly 62,000 jobless Michigan workers will become ineligible for federal unemployment benefits in March. By June, this number will swell to more than 225,700 unemployed Michigan workers. Congress must renew the extensions before Friday to continue the benefits without interruption.

Remember that the UI safety net not only helps unemployed workers and their families avert crisis, but is good for the state and local economies as well. When workers spend their unemployment checks on necessities such as food, clothing and household needs, it helps to keep local businesses thriving.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that UI benefits generate up to $1.90 in GDP per every dollar spent, making the UI provisions a very effective economic stimulus.

Michigan cannot afford for Congress to let this lapse. Fortunately, the Senate leadership is hoping to get the bill to the floor this week, have an expedited debate, and pass it in enough time to get it over the House of Representative so that both Chambers of Congress can pass it before they recess on February 12. 

Both of Michigan’s U.S. Senators are helping push this effort. This will ensure that the state unemployment offices keep the programs up and running without any interruption in benefits to workers.

— Peter Ruark