Legislature poised to lock in strict time limits on cash aid to needy families

Michigan’s massive welfare reform, which removed 15,000 families from cash assistance in its first year, was never the law of the land.

That may be about to change.

Senate Bill 1386, which would codify the Department of Human Services’ controversial time limits on cash assistance, is rushing through the Legislature this week, in what appears to be an attempt to place the policy into law before legislators leave for the holidays -- and before the Michigan Supreme Court has an opportunity to rule on the legality of the policy.

If passed by the Senate and House and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, the law could be a nail in the coffin for efforts to halt welfare rule changes in Michigan, which removed more families from cash assistance in a shorter amount of time than any other state.

Bridge Magazine and Michigan Radio chronicled the impact of the first year of welfare reform in a series of articles in 2011 and this year.

Those losing benefits over the past year were overwhelmingly the urban poor. Decreases in just three of Michigan’s 83 counties (Wayne, Genesee and Kent) account for more than half the statewide decline in welfare cases.

The Center for Civil Justice in Saginaw filed a lawsuit challenging the DHS policy, and about 6,000 families were placed back on the dole pending the outcome of the case, which is now before the Michigan Supreme Court.

In a Senate hearing Wednesday, a representative of DHS referenced the lawsuit when advocating for the bill, according to Jackie Doig, lead attorney for CCJ.

“This legislation is a reaction to the lawsuit,” Doig said.

Under the bill, most families would be limited to 60 months of cash assistance over their lifetimes. And those months could be counted retroactively back to 1996.

“It’s like changing the IRS rules and sending you a bill for 15 years of back taxes,” Doig said.

Time limits always have existed for cash assistance, but there were exemptions, for example, for families living in areas of high unemployment and families in which the only able-bodied adult was a care giver for a seriously disabled spouse or child.

Those exemptions were removed by the DHS policy in the fall of 2011. The bill now in the Legislature would turn that policy into law.

If the law is enacted, the state is projected to save about $2.8 million per month, according to an analysis by the Senate Fiscal Agency .

Neither the sponsor of the bill -- Sen. Bruce Caswell, R-Hillsdale -- or DHS returned calls for comment.

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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