Catholic Conference Urges House Committee to Abdicate Welfare Reform Efforts

(Lansing) – Citing statistics from the Department of Human Services (DHS), Michigan Catholic Conference Vice President for Public Policy Tom Hickson today urged the House Families, Children and Seniors Committee to abdicate plans to pursue increased penalties and lifetime limits within the DHS Family Independence Program, which provides state financial assistance to families with children. Hickson also included in his testimony alternative suggestions for committee members if they were adamant about pursuing welfare reform.

“According to the Department of Human Services, for 2009, out of an average monthly caseload of 65,925 there were only 531 cases of noncompliance, which is significantly less than one percent,” Hickson stated in his testimony. “Because the law came into effect so recently (enacted in 2006), we believe time needs to be taken to more fully evaluate its impact, and that the sunset should be extended with the current criteria.  The current law is working and working very well.”

Legislation before the House Families, Children and Seniors Committee this morning, House Bills 4409 and 4410, would:  
  • Institute a 48-month hard deadline for public assistance;
  • Remove the exemption on participation in the DHS Jobs, Education and Training (JET) program for counties which have substantially higher unemployment than the rest of the state; and
  • Amend the penalty for a third occasion of noncompliance from a one year prohibition to a lifetime ban.

While urging the committee to dismiss the legislation, Hickson then urged members to consider the following:
  • Instituting a 48-month hard deadline for public assistance will quickly cut the lifeline of over 12,000 of the state’s neediest citizens. Hickson testified to this point: “While I assume we agree that the goal of this committee and this state should be to prevent permanent reliance on public assistance, the fact remains that not everyone in Michigan’s cyclical economy has the ability or skill set to find a job immediately.  We must continue to ensure that our state is working to provide the tools necessary for people to receive training and assistance in order to move from dependence to independence. Simply turning our backs is to ignore the moral imperative to recognize the neediest among us.”
  • “Removing the exemption on participation in the JET program for counties which have substantially higher unemployment than the rest of the state makes little sense,” said Hickson.  “The poorest county in Michigan, for example, Lake County, has well over a majority of its land within public ownership. Where is a business going to locate?  Where are jobs going to be created?”
  • In the area of noncompliance, a lifetime ban on public assistance for a third violation is unfairly punitive, according to Hickson, who urged the committee to retain the current penalty structure, which also counts against the 48-month timeframe – essentially a double penalty. “For example, if you have someone who has had a history of noncompliance, then turns their life around, is gainfully employed, let’s say at a new battery plant for the next 10 years, what happens to that individual if that industry has a collapse,” Hickson asked the committee. “Safeguards need to be in place to recognize the cyclical nature of our economy.”

In delivering the Conference’s opposition to current welfare reform efforts, Hickson also provided suggestions to the committee if it were to continue to pursue reform.  Those suggestions included:
  • Greater enforcement or better data controls at the Department of Human Services.  Hickson suggested the committee look to previous legislation sponsored by former Senator Cameron Brown that created greater enforcement for those claiming double homestead exemptions.
  • Look at increasing the income disregard to truly allow individuals to get on their feet and increase their financial standing. “That, combined with a retained EITC, would be a potent poverty fighter,” Hickson said.

Prior to delivering his testimony, Hickson explained to the committee that the Conference believes the state budget is a moral document, one which demonstrates the highest priorities for the state, and that the first budgetary priority should be to protect Michigan’s poor and vulnerable citizens.  

There was no vote on the welfare reform legislation before today’s committee.