As unemployment falls in Michigan, so may food assistance

Food assistance ending

LANSING - Come Jan. 1, low-income, able-bodied adults in 10 Michigan counties will no longer be eligible for food assistance from the state unless they get a job, joining four other counties where the work requirements were reinstated earlier this year.

And by October 2018, the whole state will be affected by the new rules.

Food assistance recipients in Oakland and three other Michigan counties  — Kent, Ottawa and Washtenaw — already had the work requirements reinstated on Jan. 1, 2017.

In Oakland County, the number of people getting food assistance after the new rules went into effect declined from 94,030 to 85,248, mirroring declines in the other counties.

In Macomb, 98,946 people, including 60,967 adults and 39,979 children, presently receive food assistance and in Wayne, 438,150 residents, including 252,425 adults and 185,725, children receive such aid. 

It's not known yet how many people in Macomb and Wayne counties will be affected by the work requirements.

The cuts are a good news, bad news situation for thousands of Michiganders. The state got a waiver from the federal government for the work requirements back in 2002 because Michigan was particularly hard hit by the recession and unemployment rates were high, ranging from 6.2% in April 2002 to a peak of 14.9% in 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But the unemployment rate has steadily gone down since that peak and is now settled at 4.3% as of the end of September, which means that the state no longer qualifies for the waiver. 

The rules affect able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 49 who have no children. In the four counties where the rules went into effect earlier this year, there are 18,174 fewer adults getting food assistance now.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is sending notices to about 16,000 people affected in the 10 additional counties — Allegan, Barry, Berrien, Clinton, Eaton, Grand Traverse, Ingham, Ionia, Kalamazoo and Livingston — who will have to work or participate in an employment training program for at least 20 hours a week to receive assistance. Recipients can also volunteer at a nonprofit organization in order to get food assistance reinstated.

And by October 2018, the Department of Health and Human Services said work requirements will be in place for all the counties in the state. Currently 1.3 million people, including 798,455 adults and 544,267 children, receive assistance through the U.S. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The state administers the $166.1 million that comes from the federal government.

The average family of four gets $234.86 per month in food assistance, while the amount for an individual is $124.44. And the money can only be spent on food, not on other necessities like paper products or cleaning supplies.

“It’s great to see the unemployment numbers go down, but what we know is we have 15% of our population at the poverty level and another 25% of the population who are working and struggling to make ends meet,” said Mike Larson, president and CEO of the Michigan Association of United Ways.

“Sixty-two percent of our jobs in Michigan are paying $20 an hour or less and two-thirds of those are $15 or less,” he added. “The bare minimum budget to cover food, transportation and rent, it’s just not enough for people. It becomes an issue of ‘What don’t I pay this month?’ ”

Nick Lyon, director of HHS, said the state will work with individuals so they can meet the work requirements set by the federal government. He also said the changes help achieve one of the state’s goals of helping people find employment and become self-sufficient.

But nonprofit organizations fear that already huge gaps in helping fill the needs of low-income residents are only going to become larger.

Shelly Kessel, spokeswoman for Gleaners Community Food Bank, which distributes 89,000 meals a day in five southeast Michigan counties, said the annual need for food in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties is about 115 million pounds of food and Gleaners distributes 33.6 million pounds in the three counties.

“It’s one of those things as a food bank, we’re always still asking for donations,” she said. “What we focus on most is that we know there is a gap and the need that is out there.”

John Owens, spokesman for Forgotten Harvest, which “rescued” and distributed more than 45 million pounds of food last year by collecting surplus prepared and perishable food from grocery stores, fruit and vegetable markets, restaurants, caterers, dairies, farmers, wholesale food distributors and other Health Department-approved sources, fears the lines at food banks, pantries and soup kitchens are going to grow.

“This is some action that’s already been implemented in Oakland and Washtenaw counties, so we were expecting this and our lines are more than likely going to increase,” he said. “Despite an improving economy, we’re seeing more and more people coming into our lines. They can’t meet basic life expenses, like food, transportation and rent — the basic things that are getting out of reach.”

Peter Ruark, senior policy analyst for the Michigan League for Public Policy, which deals with issues relating to poverty, said the unemployment numbers may be coming down on a countywide basis, but certain towns within the counties — such as Pontiac in Oakland County — have much higher rates. Pontiac is at 7.9%

“There still is hardship in the state and county unemployment rates might mask some of the hardships in those counties. Ingham County has a 4.5% unemployment rate, but the city of Lansing has a 6.3% unemployment rate,” he said. “And in rural areas, there is not only lack of jobs, but a lack of transportation, which could be a big barrier to full-time employment for people.”

The state is phasing in the work requirements over 2018 so it can evaluate the program. And some people still will be eligible for assistance without having to work, including individuals who are physically or mentally unable to work for 20 hours, are pregnant or care for a child under age 6.

For more information, go to www.michigan.gov/foodassistance

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© 2017, Detroit Free Press


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