So much for holiday cheer and the season of giving. Last week, the state Senate passed a bill that would limit to four years the amount of time a person can receive money from welfare. Though the Senate’s harsh bill would deny welfare payments for two years to any recipient who misses work or the state’s job-training sessions three times, a proposed House bill goes even further. Should the House version become law, anyone who fails to comply with the state’s work or job-training requirements will never again be eligible to receive cash assistance through welfare in the state of Michigan.
Both bills were careful to exempt disabled people and those who take care of disabled relatives, and each version allows some form of grace period or temporary extension after the four years have elapsed. But no matter how Lansing tries to cushion the blow, these pieces of legislation still represent a disturbing attack on the well-being of Michigan’s neediest citizens.
Hunger cannot be allowed to thrive in the wealthiest nation in the world. Welfare can’t pull people out of poverty, but it can serve as a fundamental security blanket that protects the most basic needs and essential rights. No circumstances can justify a government giving up on its poorest citizens. Compassion has no shelf life, and setting an arbitrary cap on the amount of aid a welfare system can provide doesn’t shore up accountability, but merely abandons those in the most dire need of support.
Of the state’s 210,000 welfare recipients, the bills are expected to affect 8,100 independent cases covering more than 20,000 children and adults. In a state where only 22 percent of the population can claim a college education, it should be no surprise that Michigan is home to a substantial pool of people who work 40 hours a week and still cannot afford basic necessities for their families. These are the people who often work low-paying or minimum wage jobs with no health benefits and little hope for upward mobility.
The state should be offering these people more help, doing everything in its power to create productive and self-sustaining members of society. Instead, the poor – many facing insurmountable obstacles to employment – are given deadlines.
When the nation’s welfare system was overhauled in the 1990s, and the Welfare-To-Work program was first launched, the federal government set a five-year time limit for receiving cash assistance from welfare funds. Providing incentives that promote financial independence and personal responsibility is necessary. But the state cannot deny its poorest citizens their most essential needs, and it cannot ignore the fact that it is children who will suffer the most from these despicable restrictions – children who have committed no crime but to be born to parents who are unable, for whatever reason, to feed and clothe them.
Children whose parents are on the welfare rolls are already at a decided disadvantage when compared to their wealthier peers and they are statistically more likely to drop out of school, fall into drugs and end up on the streets or in prison. Stopping the cycle of poverty requires more funding from the state, not less.
Personal accountability is important, but the state must also meet its responsibility to the people of Michigan. It should place a greater emphasis on higher education, for example, to ensure well-paying jobs are not only accessible, but attainable to all citizens. Michigan shares the title of the highest unemployment rate in the nation with Alaska. As the auto giants, once the lifeblood of the state’s economy, continue to outsource manufacturing jobs, more layoffs are to come. In light of these discouraging trends, hacking away at the fundamental safety net of Michigan’s neediest citizens is not only unproductive but morally reprehensible. As the holiday season comes into full swing, state legislators had better go back to the drawing board – and this time around, they should take their compassion with them.