Gov. Rick Snyder on Tuesday signed into law a stricter, four-year lifetime limit on cash welfare benefits, prompting advocates for the poor to warn that tens of thousands of residents will find themselves without cash assistance on Oct. 1.
Snyder said the state will offer exemptions to the limit for those with a disability who can't work, those who care for a disabled spouse or child and those who are 65 or older and don't qualify for Social Security benefits or receive very low benefits. Some recipients who are the victims of domestic violence also may be temporarily exempted.
"We are returning cash assistance to its original intent as a transitional program to help families while they work toward self-sufficiency," Snyder said in a statement. He noted that the state still will help the poor by offering food stamps, health care coverage through Medicaid, child care and emergency services.
Gilda Jacobs of the Michigan League for Human Services said she expects about 41,000 people to lose their cash assistance payments on Oct. 1 when the state's new budget year begins. That includes 29,700 children, according to the Michigan Department of Human Services.
"We're very, very concerned," Jacobs said. "As the days go by, new people will be meeting the 48-month limit. ... More will be falling off that cliff."
The new law will reduce the number of children and adults receiving cash assistance by nearly a fifth, from more than 221,000 to around 180,000. Enforcing a four-year limit will save the state more than $60 million annually, according to a House Fiscal Agency analysis.
Jacobs said it's hard to see how 11,000 adults will find a job when Michigan's July unemployment rate was 10.9 percent, tied with South Carolina for third-highest in the nation.
"We still have to preserve a safety net for people who, through no fault of their own, can't find a job," she said, noting that most cash assistance goes to help poor residents pay their rent.
"There's obviously a lot of anxiety out there. Folks aren't sure exactly what this means to them."
State officials say they're working with nonprofit organizations to direct welfare recipients to other services and provide a "soft landing" as they lose benefits. Recipients will be connected with other resources, given housing and job placement assistance for up to three months beyond October and mentored by trained job navigators.
"Michigan continues to face financial challenges, and the fiscal reality is that we cannot afford to provide lifetime cash assistance to recipients who are able to work," Health and Human Services director Maura Corrigan said in a statement. "Enforcing lifetime limits for cash assistance ensures that available funds are targeted toward those recipients who need a helping hand while they find employment."
Michigan ranked 38th in child poverty for 2009, defined as income below $21,756 for a family of two adults and two children. About 23 percent of Michigan's children lived in poverty in 2009, compared with 20 percent nationally. In 2000, only 14 percent of Michigan children lived in poverty. The average age of a child in a family receiving cash assistance is around 7 years old.
Snyder, a Republican, has said reducing the number of children living in poverty is a priority of his administration.
The Michigan Catholic Conference has objected to the four-year limit. The conference said the effect will be felt for years by society and by children who lose services.