Around 14,000 unemployed Michigan workers are about to lose vital food assistance due to Michigan’s so-called economic recovery, even though many of these individual workers are not seeing any relief.
Federal law stipulates that able-bodied adults without dependents who receive federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits must work or participate in a training program for a minimum of 20 hours per week. If they have more than three months of benefits in which they do not meet those requirements within a 36-month period, they lose their benefits.
Since 2002, due to its high unemployment rate, Michigan has received a statewide waiver from the three-month limit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Due to declining unemployment, that waiver will begin to expire this month beginning with four counties (Oakland, Washtenaw, Kent and Ottawa). The state expects the waiver to be eliminated for all counties by October 2017.
The loss of the four county waivers this month will strip benefits from approximately 14,000 adults not raising children who are having a hard time finding work. These workers receive approximately $150 to $200 per person per month. When the entire state waiver is phased out next year, upward of 40,000 adults could be affected.
While it is certainly good news that unemployment has been declining in Michigan and these counties, many people are still having a difficult time finding work. The county unemployment rate only tells one part of the economic story, as there are still high-unemployment pockets in many low-unemployment counties. Oakland County has an unemployment rate of 4.2%, for example, while that of its largest city, Pontiac, is 9.9%. While Wayne County workers have not yet been affected by this change, there are similar employment discrepancies. Detroit’s unemployment rate is 11.1%, nearly double the 6.6% rate for Wayne County.
And in rural areas with no public transportation, a single factory closing could cause a community to have much higher unemployment than other areas of its county. In addition to scarce jobs, lack of access to adequate child care and transportation also hinder people’s ability to work, get training or volunteer.
The Michigan League for Public Policy is concerned that people in struggling communities will get left behind if they have not found work after three months of food assistance. We urge the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to do what it can to continue providing food assistance to struggling workers without dependents as they look for jobs, including eliminating the asset test for food assistance. Another way to help these workers is through the hardship exemption allowed by the USDA, which provides Michigan with a current total of 483,000 “assistance months” for recipients not yet meeting the work requirement. In addition, these workers should be encouraged to participate in market-driven occupational training programs or finish their GED.
Let’s celebrate the fact that Michigan’s unemployment rate this past year has been at its lowest level since 2001. But let’s not use this good news to pull the rug out from under workers who have not yet experienced the benefits of the improving economy.
— Peter Ruark