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Welfare reform: Back to the drawing board

What would you do if you could reform Michigan’s welfare system?

That may be a question state leaders are asking today, after Michigan’s massive welfare reform was thrown out in court.

Calling it an “end-run around the Legislature,” a Genesee County Circuit Court smacked down a Department of Human Services policy that knocked between 11,000 and 15,000 people off welfare cash assistance.

Nobody knows what will happen now. The Attorney General’s Office says it will appeal the ruling, but it’s anybody’s guess what the ultimate decision will be and when it will be made.

The Legislature could step in and rewrite its reform bill. The governor could offer suggestions to DHS. The department could modify its policy on its own.

Bridge Magazine thinks you should have a say, too.

What should the state do now? How does the state protect its most vulnerable citizens, many of whom are children, while also making the wisest use of limited dollars?

Tell us how you think the state should reform welfare. Who should get assistance? Who shouldn’t? For how long? Under what requirements?

Give us your solutions, and we’ll share your thoughts with DHS Director Maura Corrigan, Gov. Rick Snyder and legislative leaders.

To help, here’s a little history on Michigan’s massive welfare reform:

The Legislature approved time limits for welfare checks funded by the state last year. The Legislature set a lifetime limit of 48 months of cash assistance, starting with assistance received after October 2007. That meant a family that had received cash assistance every month since October 2007 would be kicked off immediately when the reform took effect in October 2011; others would be removed as they reached their four-year limit.

The Legislature also exempted some of the state’s most vulnerable groups from being cut off, such as single-parent families in which the parent was disabled and unable to work, and families in which an able-bodied adult couldn’t work because they were needed at home to care for a severely disabled spouse or child.

DHS took reform several steps further. At the same time it began to enforce the state’s 48-month limit, DHS began to enforce a federal 60-month limit that had been ignored for years, counting assistance doled out back to 1996. Because the state law only counted assistance back to 2007 and DHS counted back to 1996, many families were in the odd position of having timed out of a 60-month cap, while not having reached the state’s 48-month limit.

In his ruling, Genesee Circuit Judge Geoffrey Neithercut said DHS Director Maura Corrigan “exceeded her authority” and the state can't deny benefits to those who haven't reached the four-year state cap.

DHS also decided not to exempt as many families. Disabled caretaker families, for example, were cut off from cash assistance.

Judge Geoffrey Neithercut called that an “end-run” around the Legislature’s intent.

A DHS spokesman said the department is studying the decision.

DHS hasn’t released figures on how many families were removed from welfare because of the time limits. The lawsuit, filed by the Center for Civil Justice in Flint, says only about 100 Michigan families were removed by the 48-month limit written by the Legislature; meanwhile, more than 10,000 families were removed not by the state reform, but by DHS decision to begin enforcing a federal law.

How many families? DHS hasn’t released figures. Bridge estimated the total could be as high as 15,000. The Michigan League for Human Services offers a breakdown by county, including the number of children removed from cash assistance and the funding decline.

If the Circuit Court ruling stands, that’s good news for about 65,000 people, including more than 40,000 children, and bad news for the state budget -- it could cost the state more than $70 million a year to renew cash assistance to those cut off by welfare reform.

Corrigan calls welfare reform a struggle of “the vulnerable against the gamers” -- people who she believes are undeservedly getting scarce state benefits.

Tell Bridge your solution

Was DHS’ decision a good one for the state? It’s too early to tell what will happen to the families cut off from cash assistance. The move has saved the state tens of millions of dollars.

What should the state do? Should the state practice tough love and kick families off the dole and hope they find jobs? Is there a compromise that protects needy children, but still saves money? Should families of the disabled be forced to choose between caring for their loved ones and getting a job?

Share your thoughts below, and we’ll make sure those ideas are shared with policy-makers in Lansing.

Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011 after having won more than 40 national and state journalism awards since he joined the Detroit News in 1995. French has a long track record of uncovering emerging issues and changing the public policy debate through his work. In 2006, he foretold the coming crisis in the auto industry in a special report detailing how worker health-care costs threatened to bankrupt General Motors.

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