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A new PATH for Michigan workers gains friends and foes

Demita Burnett admits she made some poor decisions in her young life that ultimately led her to seek welfare assistance in January.

The 26-year-old Saginaw resident, a single mother of a 5-year-old son, had few job skills, no transportation and not even a driver’s license or state identification card.

“Financially, I had no other choice but to seek some kind of assistance,” she said.

But a new state welfare-to-work program known as PATH—Partnership, Accountability, Training and Hope—helped Burnett land a full-time job as a call center operator at the Morley Companies in Saginaw in June.

“PATH made me think about barriers that kept me from being employed,” she said. “I just wasn’t aware of all the resources available to help me.”

Implemented in January, PATH requires those seeking cash assistance from the state to first complete a 21-day assessment program in which barriers to employment are identified. Applicants for cash assistance must complete the screening before they’re considered for cash benefits.

Caseworkers from the Department of Human Services and staffers at local Michigan Works! agencies work with applicants on connecting them with services to overcome those barriers, including transportation and childcare assistance, resume writing and computer skills.

PATH replaced the Jobs Employment and Training (JET) program implemented by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration in 2007. JET’s initial screening period ranged from a few hours to three days.

“We’re really providing one-on-one counseling with everyone who comes to us,” said Sheryl Thompson, deputy director of field operations at the Department of Human Services.  “People have diverse sets of barriers to employment. We find out: What are their skills? What are their strengths? We’ve really been able to move the needle.”

Under PATH, Michigan has, for the first time, met the federal government’s requirement that 50 percent of those receiving cash assistance participate in work-related activities. The 50 percent work participation rate was instituted in 2002. Michigan’s rate was 50.8 percent in May, the latest month available.

Still, participants can engage in a variety of work-related activities, such as working in community service programs and searching for jobs without ever earning any money in the four years they are eligible to receive cash assistance.

Experts say PATH and similar welfare-to-work programs in other states are aimed more at avoiding costly penalties under the federal government’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program than they are getting people employed.

“TANF is likely the only employment program in which getting participants into paid employment is not a key measure of success,” Liz Schott and LaDonna Pavetti of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities wrote in February.

Schott and Pavetti say the federal government should provide the states with more flexibility in designing welfare-to-work programs that focus on getting participants into good jobs.

Doug Stites, CEO of the Capital Area Michigan Works! agency, agrees.

“It’s the federal government’s money and we have to play by their rules,” he said. “My goal is to turn people into taxpayers.”

Stites ran the state’s job training programs under Gov. John Engler in the 1990s. After landmark federal welfare-to-work legislation was passed by Congress in 1995, Engler created Work First, a program designed to get welfare recipients into jobs quickly. Granholm replaced Work First with JET, which emphasized training and education. Experts say the pendulum is swinging back to a concentration on work under PATH.

Larry Good, chairman of the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce in Ann Arbor, said tightened federal regulations don’t allow many education and training activities to be counted as work participation. He sees that as a mistake.

“PATH lines up with what the feds are asking for,” he said. “But I think we’re asking for the wrong things.”

Funding for welfare-to-work has been cut drastically, as well. Michigan will spend about $75.6 million, mostly in federal dollars, on PATH this year. That’s down from $101.1 million when JET began in 2007.

Michigan never came close to meeting the 50 percent requirement under JET, state officials said. In 2010, the state’s work participation rate was just 22.8 percent.

Experts said the JET program was focused more on long-term job training and education rather than quick intervention to ease barriers to employment, such as a lack of transportation or job-interview skills.

Plus, jobs were nearly impossible to come by, especially for people with few skills during the Great Recession that began at the end of 2007.

“JET didn’t align with the work participation rate requirements,” said Brian Marcotte, manager of the welfare reform section at the state Workforce Development Agency. “Michigan was facing stiff penalties from the federal government. We had to make major changes.”

Michigan was threatened with tens of millions of dollars in penalties for not meeting work participation requirements, although state officials said no penalties were ever paid.

Some say the state’s success in meeting the 50 percent work participation rate has as much to do with the federal and state governments making it harder to get welfare as it does with the success of the state’s welfare-to-work programs.

There were more than 175,000 households receiving cash assistance in 1996, the year that landmark federal welfare-to-work legislation took effect, according to data provided by the Michigan League for Public Policy.

Cash assistance caseloads fell to a record-low 47,460 households in March. But the state’s unemployment rate, at 8.5 percent in March was higher than in 1996, when it stood at 5 percent.

“Drops in the caseload are like more influenced by policy decisions that make access to temporary cash assistance more difficult,” senior policy analyst Peter Ruark wrote in a recent edition of the League's Economic Security Bulletin.

Ruark said the 21-day assessment period is a good step in helping people get services they need to find jobs.

“We very much support the strengthened screening process, but we’re concerned about the three weeks that are required before someone can get cash assistance,” he said.

“If applicants face having their electricity shut off now, we’re concerned that waiting three weeks could cause them harm,” Ruark said.

Department of Human Services officials say they can provide assistance to people facing immediate financial needs during the 21-day assessment period. And they often continue to help those who have found work and had their welfare cases closed.

Burnett, who is earning $10 an hour in her call center job in Saginaw, gets food assistance, as well as Medicaid benefits for her son.

But she views her job as a path to eventual self-sufficiency.

“After six months, I have the opportunity to move to a higher-paying department. And after nine months, they’ll pay me to take college courses,” she said. “It’s substantially more than I had before.”

Rick Haglund has had a distinguished career covering Michigan business, economics and government at newspapers throughout the state. Most recently, at Booth Newspapers he wrote a statewide business column and was one of only three such columnists in Michigan. He also covered the auto industry and Michigan’s economy extensively. 

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