Column: Michigan is failing children with tattered safety net 

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As state legislators approve budgets for Fiscal Year 2020, it seems unlikely that anything will be done to rebuild the tattered safety net for children living in deep poverty. 

Despite ongoing high levels of poverty, the number of children receiving basic income assistance through the Family Independence Program (FIP) fell from 151,000 in 2009 to only 32,000 this year — a decline of almost 80%. The number of families receiving income assistance through FIP in Michigan is now lower than it was in the late 1950s.

Why the steep decline in help for children facing the deepest poverty? The reality is that state lawmakers made it harder for families to receive needed assistance by approving a series of policy changes that they claimed were intended to force parents to work rather than accept a “state handout.” 

In an effort to “get tough” on parents, they made decisions that punished many children. Almost eight of every 10 FIP beneficiaries are children, including many young children younger than 6.

Federal law sets a lifetime limit of 60 months for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) income assistance — with a state option for a hardship exception for up to 20% of the families. But Michigan adopted a 48-month state lifetime limit in 2007 and eliminated exceptions to the federal 60-month limit in 2011. 

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Michigan also set in place policies that could deny benefits for an entire family because of the truancy of a single child, and ended the policy allowing child support offered by noncustodial parents to be passed along to their children who are receiving FIP. 

To make matters worse, monthly payments for FIP have not been increased along with the cost of living. In the 25 years between 1993 and 2018, the maximum cash assistance grant increased from $459 per month for a family of three to only $492 per month. In the face of inflation, the result is a nearly 40% reduction in purchasing power for families. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer | Casey Hull

For Fiscal Year 2020, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recommended that children receiving FIP be able to receive up to $200 in child support payments. But her proposal was rejected by both the state House and Senate — despite the obvious benefits to children and the evidence that noncustodial parents who know that their payments will go directly to their children are more likely to comply with court-ordered child support.

Poverty matters. Children in poverty are more likely to have inadequate nutrition; live in homes and neighborhoods where they are exposed to environmental toxins; have untreated health conditions; move frequently, disrupting their educations and social connections; and be exposed to the family stresses that can lead to involvement with the state’s child welfare system. 

Study: Michigan ranks in bottom half of nation on child welfare measures

The deleterious effects of poverty on children create innumerable barriers to their success in school and ultimately in the workforce — all of which threatens their futures and Michigan’s economic prospects.  

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) budget now under consideration by the Legislature appears on the surface to be a largely status quo budget as it relates to FIP income assistance. But it, in fact, continues to institutionalize policies that have hurt children living in the deepest poverty, as well as a disproportionate number of children of color. 

We need state leaders who do more than engage in rhetoric about creating equity for all children. We need action to achieve it.

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