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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Cuts don't fall evenly across Michigan

A welfare recipient in Flint is four times more likely to be kicked off cash assistance next month than a welfare recipient in bucolic Luce County -- even though the Upper Peninsula county has a higher poverty rate.

In rural northern Lake County, 36 percent of children lived below the poverty threshold, the highest rate in the state in 2008, the most recent figures available. Yet its welfare recipients are eight times less likely to lose their cash assistance than comparatively wealthy Wayne County.

Michigan’s welfare reform will remove more than 11,000 families composed of more than 30,000 people in one day. A Bridge Magazine analysis of Michigan Department of Human Services data revealed that the impact of that reform will hit like a sledgehammer in a few cities, and be practically nonexistent in much of the rest of the state -- including the 10 counties with the highest poverty rates in 2008.

Under the state’s welfare reform, residents are limited to 48 months of cash assistance in their lifetimes. Because the law is retroactive, more than 11,000 families are being kicked out immediately.

The majority of cash-assistance welfare recipients are in Michigan’s big cities (40 percent are in Wayne County alone -- home of Detroit). Bridge’s analysis found that those poor, urban families are much more likely to be timed-out of benefits than families from counties with higher poverty rates.

Across the state, 14 percent of cash-assistance welfare cases are being kicked out of the system because the recipients have received aid for more than 48 months. But of the state’s 83 counties, only four have  a cut-off rate higher than that average: Wayne at 20.9 percent; Genesee (home of Flint), 19.3 percent; Muskegon, 18.3 percent; and Saginaw, 14.7 percent.

By contrast, a dozen counties have no welfare families losing cash assistance benefits. And 52 of Michigan's 83 counties have less than 4 percent of their welfare cases being timed out.

Of the 10 counties with the highest percentage of children living in poverty in 2008 (all rural northern counties), nine have a welfare removal rate less than a third of the state average. Roscommon County, home of Houghton Lake, for example, had the second-highest child poverty rate in the state, at 35.1 percent. Yet of 144 welfare cases in the county now, only one is being cut off next month.

That doesn’t mean it’s better to be poor in the country than the city. But it does seem to indicate that Michigan’s rural poor are less likely to receive benefits than equally poor city residents -- and that the rural poor don’t stay on assistance as long.

(BRIDGE DOCS: Excel spreadsheet of case removal figures, percentages for all 83 counties.)

“It might be harder for (the rural poor) to get to a welfare office,” said poverty researcher Luke Shaefer, assistant professor of social work at the University of Michigan. “There might be fewer people who are knowledgeable about the system.”

There also may be cultural factors, admits Shaefer, who has done research with the rural poor. “We’d see that all the power had been cut off and there was no food, and (DHS representatives) would have to fight with them to go on welfare.”

Scott Dzurka, president of the Michigan Association of United Ways, says the chronic urban poor have been on welfare longer because of DHS rules that encouraged them to stay on the system.

Before this fall’s reform, welfare recipients in counties with an unemployment rate 10 percent higher than the state average could surpass the state’s 48-month limit. Counties such as Genesee and Wayne typically have higher-than-average unemployment rates.

About this project

Michigan lawmakers have embarked on a huge experiment in social welfare policy: a strictly enforced lifetime cap on cash assistance benefits. How will this affect the thousands of families receiving this aid, the communities in which they live and the course of public policy? For the next year, Bridge Magazine will provide regular reports from ex-recipients and policy-makers to judge the effectiveness of this change.

Also, individual DHS caseworkers had discretion to decide whether families met any exemptions that would allow them to stay on aid. Now, most of the exemptions are gone.

In Detroit alone, 21,000 people (in 6,560 families) will lose benefits. A Detroit News analysis found that in a five-square-mile section of the city, about 3,500 people -- an average of a family in every block -- will be cut off.

Rep. Rick Olson, R-Saline, grew up on welfare. His father died when he was a baby, and his mother spent 17 years collecting cash assistance in the U.P. Yet Olson, who voted for the tightened limits, sees a difference between his upbringing and a “culture” of welfare he feels permeates Michigan’s urban centers.

“At home (in the U.P.) you were only on welfare because you had to be,” Olson said. “In the urban areas today, it’s far more acceptable to be on public assistance.

“If they don’t qualify anymore, they’re going to have to do what my mother did and get five cents out of a nickel," he said.

That concentration of the chronic poor in a small portion of the state made it easier for legislators to vote for welfare reform, claims Gilda Jacobs, president of the advocacy group Michigan League for Human Services. “Most of these people are not in the back yards of the legislators,” Jacobs said. “They’re coming from the urban areas.”

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