Federal threats to cut Michigan’s welfare funds are a low blow from an administration that knows all too well how to throw one. An ultimatum from Washington will withdraw 38 million dollars from the state’s Temporary Assistance to Needy Families grant unless Michigan can find jobs or training for half its caseload, 11,500 welfare recipients, in the next five months. And the state is not alone – 37 other states are out of compliance with the new rule. TANF, itself an underfunded product of mid-1990s welfare reform, simply can’t withstand further reductions. Adding insult to injury, the cuts aren’t even presented as a viable package of welfare reform – they’re simply crude red lines scribbled through the federal budget by an inexpert majority.
Congress’s true intent is expressed not in the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (which was actually signed this February) that mandated the cuts, but rather in its implementation. The Department of Health and Human Services has no problem tying a continued flow of funds to improving one aspect of public welfare. It refuses, however, to release its definition of that aspect – what, exactly, states must do specifically to keep their TANF funding – until June 1. With an issue as complicated as welfare funding, states can only guess at what is expected of them. In the meantime, the federal program of “reform” is fait accompli: Intentionally unreachable goals mean the Bush administration was pursuing welfare cuts from the start.
Meanwhile, Michigan is left to foot the bill. Some members of the state Legislature contend that the state’s new Jobs, Education and Training program, set to be tested in four counties starting this month, should simply be rolled out across the state immediately. To do so misses the mark: The costs of hastily implementing a new program statewide under crisis conditions could doom the program itself. The problem isn’t a lack of state programming – it’s the unsympathetic Republican majority in Washington that again fails to put its spending priorities in order.