LANSING — Low-income Michigan residents can have more money in the bank without losing access to public assistance under new policies announced Thursday by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Beginning Nov. 1, Michigan will allow residents with up to $15,000 in personal assets to remain eligible for cash, food and emergency relief assistance programs, including funding for winter home heating. The state will maintain strict income caps for welfare eligibility.
The administration of former Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, established some of the strictest asset limits in the country at $50 for State Emergency Relief, $3,000 for the Family Independence Program and $5,000 for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously known as food stamps.
“This was cruel and unusual punishment for people who were struggling to have to jump through more barriers in order to get a basic need addressed,” Gilda Jacobs, president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy, told Bridge Magazine after the state announcement.
It’s not immediately known how many more residents will quality for assistance because of the new limits – or how much they will cost the state, said Robert Gordon, the state’s health director. The biggest impact, though, likely will be on eligibility for food assistance, which is fully funded by the federal government, he said.
Along with lifting asset limits, the Department of Health and Human Services will no longer count the value of a family vehicle as an asset in determining food assistance eligibility. In most cases, the state will also allow recipients to tell caseworkers their assets, rather than have them verified through a checklist.
That worries Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, who is “extremely concerned that self reporting of assets will result in greater fraud and divert resources from vulnerable people who truly need assistance,” said Amber McCann, spokeswoman for the Clarklake Republican.
But Gordon said the new state budget provides his department with another $3.4 million to “step up efforts to identify errors and fraud.” The new rules will cut “red tape” and speed up the assistance application process for those most in need, he said
“We can fight fraud without fighting families who are just trying to get help,” Gordon said in a press conference at the Greater Lansing Foodbank roughly 4 miles from the Michigan Capitol.
The new rules “give families more stability in hard times because they won’t have to give up savings to get help,” Gordon said. “It will reduce the time and stress that individuals face when dealing with us, because it is hard enough dealing with a layoff or an illness.”
The changes come as President Donald Trump is reconsidering a 2002 policy that allowed states to set their own asset limits for welfare recipients.
At least 34 states have eliminated the asset test all together for food assistance, contrasting with Michigan rules that Whitmer said were “arbitrarily keeping people in poverty from accessing resources available to similarly situated people in other states.”
Michigan’s new asset limit for food assistance will be the second highest among the 16 states that have a test, according to data compiled by the health department. It’s asset limit for cash assistance will be the highest in the nation, aside from eight states that have no cap.
As Bridge previously reported, Michigan changed its rules for home heating assistance last year under an umbrella program that prohibited residents from qualifying if they had more than $50 in the bank, a retirement account or even a funeral pre-payment.
Whitmer raised the asset limit to $500 earlier this year, and the cap will climb to $15,000 next month as residents begin to confront the cold Michigan winter.
“A family struggling to keep their head above water shouldn’t have to be completely destitute to get a little help,” Whitmer said. “This is about ensuring that people have the ability to get up and to get by.”
Residents seeking assistance will still be required to prove their incomes to qualify for the programs. In Michigan, a single adult now qualifies for food stamps if he or she has a gross income of less than $2,024 a month, or $24,288 a year. A family of four qualifies if they have a gross household income of $4,184 a month, or $50,208 a year.
Chere Coleman of Michigan Community Action, which represents local assistance agencies across the state, said staffers had grown frustrated by the old asset limits that prevented assistance for residents who had a small amount of savings.
“This actually discouraged customers and our families from building a savings account for emergency services,” she said.
The new rules will give welfare recipients the ability to build personal savings for use in the event of a medical emergency, car repairs or to put their children through community college, Coleman said.
For most applicants for public assistance, the state will verify asset claims, but extra scrutiny will be given to applicants who report more than $10,000 in assets, officials said.
State Rep. Matt Maddock, a first-term Milford Republican who worked the past 32 years as a bail bondsman, said he’s concerned by the new rules because he personally witnessed a “tremendous amount of fraud” within social welfare programs.
“We’d have to go out to pick people up for skipping court, for example, and many of these people have had numerous Bridge cards on them,” he said, referencing cards used to access food assistance benefits. “I’ve been in homes and apartments where I’ve seen more than 100 Bridge cards, so there’s an entire black market that’s existed for many years.”
Maddock said the Legislature should explore ways to challenge the new rules. He’s preparing to introduce a bill that would add a photograph to Bridge cards in order to limit their use to authorized recipients.
Former Department of Human Services Director Maura Corrigan aggressively fought welfare fraud and implemented new rules to ensure lottery winners were not eligible for public assistance. In 2012, she joined then-Attorney General Bill Schuette in announcing welfare fraud charges against a woman who had exploited a since-closed loophole to continue collecting benefits despite winning $1 million in a “Make Me Rich!” game.
After spotting a food stamp applicant arrive at a state office in a Hummer, Corrigan also successfully pushed to bar low-income residents from the program if they owned a vehicle worth more than $15,000, a restriction the Whitmer adminisraiton is now lifting.
“I have great respect for the former director and think she did a lot of wonderful things for the department, but we should not visit the sins of a very few people on hundreds of Michiganders who are trying to get by,” Gordon said. “There are vastly better ways to deal with a person with a Hummer than punishing hundreds of thousands of people in the state.”
The Whitmer administration’s policy shift stands in contrast to efforts by the Trump administration to limit the ability of states to set their own food assistance eligibility requirements. Under a proposed federal rule, people who have assets of more than $2,250 or make more than 130 percent of the poverty line would lose eligibility.
In Michigan, an estimated 95,094 residents — roughly 12 percent of people who currently qualify — would lose monthly Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits under the Trump administration rules, according to a recent analysis by the data and policy firm Mathematica.
The League for Public Policy, which advocates for economic opportunity, has long pushed for Michigan to fully eliminate public assistance asset limits, but doing so would require a change in state law.
“With the current Legislature, we don’t see that as happening,” Jacobs said, referencing the Republican-led state House and Senate. “But being able to go in and change the policy to be more in line with the rest of the United States makes a lot of sense.