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Center for Michigan, Bridge win battle for transparency on welfare records

Bridge Magazine and the Center for Michigan prevailed in a Freedom of Information Act appeal, gaining access to records related to Michigan residents removed from cash assistance as a result of the state’s massive welfare reform.

In May, Bridge requested data from the Michigan Department of Human Services documenting how many of the more than 13,000 families removed from cash assistance because of newly enforced lifetime caps had reapplied for assistance. “Timed-out” families were allowed to re-apply because of a lawsuit working its way through the courts.

DHS denied Bridge Magazine’s request, claiming it “does not possess records falling within the scope of the description provided in your request, or by another name.” In other words, DHS implied that the records Bridge wanted didn’t exist.

But lawyers representing DHS produced almost identical records within days of the denial, offering them in court as part of a lawsuit.

Confronted with the records it said didn’t exist, DHS reversed its FOIA denial and gave Bridge a two-inch-thick stack of documents. According to those newly released documents:

*  8,856 families knocked off cash assistance because of time limits had re-applied for benefits, as of July 15.

*  Of those applications, 39 percent had been processed as of July 15.

*  Of those applications processed, two-thirds were approved for renewed benefits while the court case challenging the policy is being resolved, and one-third were denied.

UPDATE: Latest figures from DHS (provided Aug. 14)

“We’re grateful for DHS’ eventual cooperation with our information request,” said John Bebow, president of the Center for Michigan. “It’s a win for the cause of open and transparent government.”

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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