Opinion | When government works: Michigan’s response to COVID's economic crisis

Stories about the failures of government are all too common. But sometimes, when we’re not looking, government does the remarkable. It saves lives, it keeps people fed and in their homes, and it keeps the lights on. We are right to hold government accountable when it falls short. But we should also take note when it does its job well.

The Imperial College of London estimated that the Whitmer administration’s actions to address the COVID-19 health crisis saved thousands of lives. What has been less widely reported are the actions the administration took to help struggling families through the greatest economic crisis of my lifetime. In full disclosure, as an adviser to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, I was able to play a small role in these efforts. But as someone who primarily works outside of state government, I think this story deserves to be told.

One of our most important anti-poverty programs is called SNAP, formerly food stamps. More than 1 million Michiganders used SNAP to buy food even before COVID-19. Early in the crisis, as unemployment soared and people were asked to stay home, federal legislation allowed states to deliver additional food assistance to struggling families. Michigan was the first state in the nation to get this help to families. On the first day of this program the Department sent $30 million to 300,000 struggling families all across the state.

H. Luke Shaefer is the Hermann and Amalie Kohn Professor at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, a professor of social work, and Director of Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan. He serves as a special counselor on economic mobility to the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services

The same federal bill allowed states to send added food benefits to families with school-aged children missing school meals. This might sound easy, but the steps are complicated. In addition to paying these benefits to school aged children already on SNAP, this also required MDHHS and the Michigan Department of Education to work together to identify kids who accessed free school meals but not SNAP, and develop a brand new process to ensure they got help too. Once again, the New York Times reported that, once again, Michigan was the first state to run this gauntlet and get our children these extra dollars. Between these two programs, Michigan is nearing $1 billion in added federal food benefits sent to struggling families since COVID struck.

Another worry for families was home heating and electricity. To combat this, MDHHS, the Michigan Public Service Commission, and the major utilities providers worked with the Governor’s team to ensure that no low-income family faced shutoff in the spring and into the summer. But since this moratorium was just a temporary fix, MDHHS also worked to streamline its statewide energy assistance program. Further, using new federal funding, the State Government worked with DTE, Consumers Energy, SEMCO and UPPCO to make direct payments using federal funds to 41,000 low-income families facing shutoffs across the state. Michigan’s utility providers were active partners, agreeing to forgive 25 percent of the past due balances, to the tune of $5 million.

Housing security was a major concern at the start of the crisis. Early on, the governor imposed an eviction moratorium, and this moratorium was in effect until mid-July. But a moratorium is only a temporary and partial solution. A coalition including the governor’s office, the Michigan Supreme Court, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, MDHHS, and members of the legal aid community, developed a new system to help. The Supreme Court put together an innovative process to work through evictions in an orderly and fair way. The governor and the Michigan Legislature dedicated $50 million in funding to help families avoid eviction. Landlords who participate are asked to be part of the solution too, forgiving 10 percent of back rents and waiving all late fees and interest. The result is that two months after the expiration of the eviction moratorium, evictions remain far below levels seen last year.

Expanded unemployment assistance played a major role in shoring up the financial stability of Michigan families. Many news stories have reported on the long waits that some workers experienced to get benefits. But at the same time, it is astounding how fast the program expanded. The Agency went from processing about 5,000 weekly claims before COVID, to a peak of 388,000 in April, by far the most ever. Michigan was one of the first states to adopt new policy changes to expanding eligibility to more workers, and to increase benefit levels. It has paid nearly $22 billion in benefits to 2.1 million Michigan workers. Families spend these benefits on things like rent and their utility bills.

Other programs have helped households pay water bills and made it easier for low-income community college students to get food aid. Most of these efforts were jump-started through a unique influx of federal funds, but also would not have been possible without broad and diverse partnerships between advocates, private business, multiple state agencies and municipal governments. That’s the kind of broad-based partnership that’s necessary to make a difference in people's lives.

Sometimes government disappoints us. But with the right leadership, and with diverse collaborations, the tools of government can make a tremendous difference in people's lives. Many people are still struggling during this time of great uncertainty. But during this historic crisis, the State of Michigan has mounted as aggressive a response as any state in the union. Millions of Michiganders who were impacted directly are better off for it, as is the state as a whole. We should stand up and take notice, and we should expect that our state leadership show this kind of action on behalf of families, always.

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Michigan observer
Sat, 10/03/2020 - 6:07pm

Professor H. Luke Shaefer says that the Imperial College of London estimated " that the Whitmer administration’s actions to address the COVID-19 health crisis saved thousands of lives. " Does he recall that same institution also made predictions about the pandemic that were wildly wrong by orders of magnitude. That same outfit was also hugely wrong with predictions about outbreaks of other diseases, notably the mad cow disease? And he does not use significant language when he says "thousands of lives". Does that mean two thousand lives or two hundred thousand lives? He writes about the help provided to low income people. And surely, helping low-income people is commendable, but at what cost? Wasn't much of the help those people needed was due to their being deprived of their ability to make a living? Isn't this a case of providing help to a few at the expense of the larger community? It is inevitably the case that the interests of some conflict with the interest of the community as a whole? And, is it wise to inflict costs on the community that are larger than the benefits to the few? Isn't that the very definition of a "special interest"? How can a community prosper if that is the rule of thumb?

And the Governor always defends a given measure as saving lives". If that is her rationale, why doesn't she prohibit anyone from driving faster than 25 miles an hour? That would save several thousand Michigan lives a year. Why doesn't she do that? That would meet the Imperial college's and Professor Shaefer' criteria.