Michigan's "Welfare Reform"

— an interview with Kathleen Gmeiner

KATHLEEN GMEINER, AN attorney in Detroit, is public policy coordinator of the Hunger Action Coalition and a board member of the Michigan Fair Budget Action Coalition. The views she expresses here are her own, not necessarily policy statements of either organization. She was interviewed by David Finkel of the ATC editorial board.

Against the Current: The current debate over welfare has a strong ideological component: the fight to preserve the idea that society has some obligation to help people in need. What arguments do you find helpful to get that idea across in the face of the right-wing offensive?

Kathleen Gmeiner: The dispute between right and left, I think, isn’t really over whether there’s some kind of societal obligation. The question is on whom that obligation falls.

The right wing says that the private sector is the appropriate vehicle to meet both the small and large needs of people. Those not only on the left, but also many in the political middle, argue that the government must have some kind of role.

My response is that the idea that these needs should be met through increases in private charity is empty. The need is too great. As someone noted to me recently, there are something like 260,000 religious congregations in this country—of all kinds, including very tiny churches. If these congregations picked up all the cuts proposed by Congress, each would have to make up $100,000 or more. That’s simply unrealistic.

If people have a right to dignity, then they have the right to fairness in how any benefits system is administered.

ATC: It’s essentially the difference between an entitlement versus a charity?

KG: Yes—and whether there’s some government responsibility to assure that everyone who needs help gets some.

Charity cannot possibly provide that, and it’s unfair in another sense: It’s given by people who happen to feel most strongly about meeting needs, and often these are poor people who have been there themselves. They don’t have the money; so it’s very unfair to think that those who are least able to help should do the most.

ATC: Michigan and its governor John Engler are in the spotlight of "welfare reform." What does this mean on the state level?

KG: Michigan has embraced an approach to the welfare system that’s called "Work First"—a concept that means we’d rather see people on assistance working, at poverty wages, than have them lifted out of poverty. Thus the state government exchanged a system with some component of training and education in order to leave the welfare system for one that says that working is the first priority.

Michigan is not concerned that the person’s education may limit him or her to a minimum-wage job. This fosters "more" dependency, in the name of reducing it, by failing to assist people to get the education they need to leave the welfare rolls.

For example, everybody is expected to work twenty hours a week. If somebody is in post-secondary education full-time, that’s no excuse. That’s hard enough to do for people who don’t have problems; and for people who are poor and often have many problems, it’s impossible. Peo<->ple requiring assistance will abandon their attempts to complete their schooling or their children will suffer.

That’s why there’s no question in my mind that Work First is a dependency-causing program.

Michigan’s "welfare reform" bill, passed late in 1995, attempts to create a system with absolutely no tolerance for someone who isn’t immediately able to go to work. Now, if federal welfare reform isn’t passed, Michigan won’t be able to implement this, unless it gets a waiver (exempting the state from federal welfare requirements—ed.).

One can’t help but see in some recent statements by the Governor, about providing transportation and childcare for people to get to work, that Michigan hopes to get this waiver. The changes that would take place include moving Department of Social Services case assistance to a "family independence agency." Assistance payment workers would become case workers.

Individuals would apply for assistance on behalf of their family. As soon as it was established that the family was eligible from the standpoint of need, the adults in the family would have to attend a joint orientation between the Jobs Commission and the Family Independence Agency, and then sign a "social contract" to participate in Work First.

At the end of sixty days the case is to be reviewed. If the individual hasn’t cooperated, with Work First, the case would be closed. This is a big change from initially granting assistance on the basis of financial need and having a child in your family. Now you wouldn’t become eligible until you’ve demonstrated sixty-day compli<->ance with Work First.

If you think about the situations people are in when they apply for assistance, you can see how punitive this is. At the point of applying, a family may just have experienced an eviction or a woman may have just fled from an abusive spouse and be trying to find housing and schooling for her children.

For a person at that most critical and vulnerable point in life, to be told to cooperate with Work First or have her benefits cut off and her children put at risk—that’s certainly punitive.

In connection with Engler’s "zero tolerance" for people not working, he announced in his tate-of-the-state address a program to establish "demonstration communities" around the state where additional resources would be put into transportation and childcare.

The Michigan law, however, doesn’t place a cap (time limit) on the receipt of cash assistance. But that is clearly the direction Congress wants to go, so that a family would become ineligible for any cash assistance after sixty months, consecutive or non-consecutive. In that respect the federal version is even worse than the Michigan

ATC: In 1991 General Assistance (GA), welfare for single people without families, was eliminated in Michigan. What has been the impact on people who were receiving it?

KG: At worst, it meant death—through freezing by being homeless in winter. It also contributed to deaths of people with chronic illnesses, who were forced to try to survive with no money at all before they could get on state disability or SSI.

For others it meant exchanging one form of dependency for another, with less dignity. Before they could rent a room; now they are forced into shelters. In the shelters there’s a lot less certainty about how long you can stay, and the provider has a lot more control.

Older people have moved in with adult children, so a lot of family stresses were created. While somewhere between thirty to forty percent found some kind of work, sixty to seventy percent didn’t.

ATC: There’s been relatively little public outcry and minimal disruptive protest action over the elimination of General Assistance. Why?

KG: I think the strongest reason is racism—the public perception being that the GA recipient was a young, single Black male, not a very popular constituency. That wasn’t a statistical reality, of course: More GA recipients were white than Black, old than young, etc. But the image was that of young able-bodied people.

Michigan really seems divided politically. Over the years Detroit has lost much of its voting power, which has shifted to suburban districts. These are largely white, tend to vote Republican, and, even when they’re Democratic, many suburban Democrats tend to vote with Republicans on welfare issues.

Second, a friend of mine once noted, there’s "the principle of diminishing astonishment." In the early 1980s when the homeless began to appear in the streets, those of us with places to live were very uncomfortable. But then it became less out of the ordinary. Same with GA: People began to get very accustomed to the idea of massive cuts and felt there wasn’t anything they could do.

ATC: What lessons have welfare rights activists been drawing from the experience of this assault on welfare?

KG: First, that there’s a long way to go in educating the "public," for want of a better word, that our society has to put work ahead of profit. There’s lots of right-wing rhetoric that work is a high value, while we see major corporations downsizing and throwing tens of thousands of people out of work.

When AT&T recently announced its downsizing, for example, its stock rose. This says that profits are more important than people and job security. And all of us share some complicity here, because even working class people’s pensions are tied up in the stock market.

The government is fostering a "pro-work" climate by forcing people with inadequate education or skills to go to work at minimum wage. So what activists need to develop is an analysis that can appropriately counter the right-wing argument that minimum-wage jobs are an appropriate response to poverty.

We haven’t been so good at doing that—we’ve bought into the argument that "of course we are for people going to work." In fact we should be raising the value of attending to children. For a single mother raising a child in a dangerous neighborhood, having to be away from the child for a long period of time isn’t good for the child or the society.

We’ve also learned that we need a broader constituency, to put pressure to support real "welfare reform" on Democrats and Republicans, both of which (those who aren’t from Michigan’s large urban areas) voted last December for a not very good "welfare reform" bill.

There’s also the need to do better organizing and to build better alliances. Welfare recipients can’t win alone; and well-meaning people in non-profit agencies or church people will never be able to win alone. Alliances with the civil rights and women’s movements are essential to attract the attention and loyalty of a broader group of people.

ATC: Often we are involved in fighting to retain something, like welfare, that’s inadequate to begin with. What’s your vision of what should be in place?

KG: It should clearly differentiate between two kinds of specific populations. A welfare system aimed at families would be a very child-centered system to ensure that the children in the families get what they need. This means first and foremost an adequate grant level.

Then, if the age of the children implies that they can get along with a single parent in the work force, the system would concentrate on providing education and training.

For single people, the former GA recipients, there should be a much more work and education-oriented system, so that every person coming into that system would have a job plan. This would recognize that people with only high school diplomas are not very well-positioned to succeed.

ATC: Does this imply a system of universal entitlements—like social security, which is politically hard to attack because everyone feels its theirs by right?

KG: Yes, absolutely. And you can think of many other inequities. For instance, I’m not a homeowner so I don’t get the mortgage interest deduction. If some of these breaks were actually paid to people directly in some fashion, as an entitlement, then I think the programs would be less vulnerable.

Take Medicare: It’s understandable that some people would think it should be means-tested. Why should the affluent need to get subsidized prescriptions and so forth? But once you do that, then those wealthy recipients would say they can do better in the private health care market. So the program shifts to poorer and sicker people, and its credibility and reputation become vulnerable, just like welfare.

ATC 61, March-April 1996