Poverty task force wants Michigan to cut red tape for safety net programs, increase opportunities for inmates

By Anna Gustafson, Michigan Advance

To better support the millions of Michiganders struggling to make ends meet, the state should expand apprenticeship opportunities for inmates while they are incarcerated, end asset tests for food assistance, and increase affordable housing for low-income families and people without housing, among a series of other initiatives, according to a newly released report from the Michigan Poverty Task Force.

Members of the task force, which Gov. Gretchen Whitmer formed at the end of 2019 and is led by the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO), on Wednesday presented a detailed report of 35 policy recommendations aimed at lifting millions of state residents from economic hardship. 

Currently, about 1.4 million Michiganders live below the federal poverty level — including one in five children — and 43% of the state’s 9.9 million residents are employed but cannot afford basic needs, including housing, food and transportation, according to the United Way’s ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) report.

“It is my heartfelt belief that these recommendations are the first step toward restoring Michigan’s safety net and bringing opportunity to struggling families,” Kim Trent, deputy director for prosperity at the LEO and a staff member of the Poverty Task Force, said at a Wednesday press conference. 

The recommendations, a full list of which you can see here, are broken down into five categories: benefits; economics; criminal justice; health, safety and housing; and education. They include: 

  • Overhauling the way Michigan allocates Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), a federal benefits program meant to provide cash for a limited amount of time to low-income families. According to the task force’s report, Michigan falls far behind other states in ensuring this temporary aid gets to families who need it the most. As of 2017, 19% of Michigan’s TANF dollars were used for basic assistance, child care and resources to help people with and retain jobs. This compares to a nationwide average of 52%. Much of Michigan’s TANF money is allocated to pay for foster care services and other priorities, such as funding merit-based college scholarships for students of any economic status who earn high scores on standardized tests, according to the task force.
  • Support and incubate children’s savings accounts. In Whitmer’s Fiscal Year 2022 budget proposal, she requested $2 million to work with philanthropic partners to support a statewide infrastructure that would incubate and support children’s savings accounts throughout Michigan.
  • Expand housing opportunities for individuals attempting to rebuild their lives after serving time in prison. In an effort to reduce recidivism rates, the task force is calling for state legislators to increase support for an existing state pilot program that gives returning citizens access to affordable housing.
  • Expand apprenticeship opportunities for inmates while they are incarcerated. 
  • Divert people with behavioral health needs away from the criminal justice system. 
  • Increase funding for the Michigan Housing and Community Development Fund, which aims to increase the supply of affordable homes for low-income families, including people experiencing homelessness and individuals with special needs. Whitmer has requested $10 million in her FY 2022 budget for the program, which the task force said has long been underfunded.
  • Expand the Great Start Readiness Program, the state-funded preschool program for four-year-old children who have been identified as being at risk of educational failure. Currently, the needs of a little more than 20,000 children are not being met by this program, according to the task force. Whitmer has requested $32 million to expand the program in her FY 2022 budget. 
  • End asset tests for food assistance. Michigan is one of 16 states that has an asset test test to receive food assistance. Families that have more than $15,000 in assets are not eligible for assistance in Michigan.

In the coming weeks and months, Trent said task force members, staff and leaders will “have robust conversations with state legislators and other stakeholders about the recommendations in this report.” The task force consists of leaders from 14 state departments and receives input from legislators and philanthropy and community organizations.

“We hope to find a path to consensus to help rebuild Michigan’s safety net and build paths to generational economic stability for our state’s struggling families,” Trent said.

Mike Larson, president and CEO of the Michigan Association of United Ways, emphasized that the task force’s work not only will lift people from poverty but also empower the 43% of Michigan residents who are employed but are unable to pay for basic needs.

“In looking at real, measurable data identifying those who struggle to afford basic needs, we can better visualize ways to collaborate, shine a light and ultimately reduce the ALICE population—and the poverty task force has set out to do just that,” Larson said in a press release.

Whitmer noted the task force’s work is particularly crucial in the wake of COVID-19.

“The economic impact and hardships this pandemic has imposed on so many Michiganders only makes the work of this task force more critical,” Whitmer said in a press release. “These recommendations will help us to ensure that Michigan families have access to the support they need. I look forward to working across the aisle with our many stakeholders to implement the recommendations that have the biggest impact across our state.”

Disclosure: Trent is married to Ken Coleman, a reporter at the Michigan Advance.  THE MORNING NEWSLETTER Subscribe now.

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