League joins national networks in a decade of change

The decade of the 1990s brought changes in the nation, in Michigan and at the Michigan League for Human Services. The decade began with a short recession, just eight months, followed by a sluggish economic recovery and then robust growth.

During the 1990s the nation saw a period of significant economic expansion. Personal income increased, the national debt was paid down, the country enjoyed record surpluses and unemployment fell to historic lows.

At the end of the decade the unemployment rate had dropped to 4.1 percent.

In Michigan, the decade began with what was then considered an unprecedented budget deficit — nearly $ 1 billion. As Gov. John Engler began his first of three terms in office, his Fiscal Year 1991-1992 budget included sweeping cuts to programs constituting the social safety net. The League played a major role in rallying opposition to cuts that affected vulnerable families and children, the elderly and the disabled.

Despite aggressive advocacy efforts and litigation brought on behalf of clients by Michigan Legal Services attorneys, the state’s General Assistance was ended and benefits were terminated for roughly 83,000 single adults and couples without children. The Emergency Needs Program was also eliminated and replaced with a much more restrictive program (State Emergency Relief), and energy assistance payments were slashed. The League spearheaded an effort to document the impact of the program eliminations and published one of only two reports on the elimination of GA.

The assault on social programs was not confined to Michigan. With the mid-term elections in 1994 came the Contract With America, a deficit reduction and devolution document released by Congressional Republicans.

The Contract called for drastic changes in programs such as AFDC, Food Stamps and Medicaid, proposing to block grant these programs to the states. The League, drawing upon its work on the impact of block grants on Michigan in the 1980s, provided extensive analysis and comments to both federal and state policymakers. Ultimately, the Food Stamp and Medicaid programs remained entitlements but, after two vetoes, President Clinton signed a welfare reform bill into law in 1996.

In 1997, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. The new legislation included stringent work requirements and marked a shift in the focus on education and training to promote self-sufficiency to job search and immediate employment efforts. The League took the lead in establishing a state coalition to advocate a set of principles for welfare reform implementation in Michigan, and carefully monitored the impact on children and families.

The 1990s saw other changes in Michigan’s policy landscape. In 1992, term limits passed by a sizable majority, ushering in the toughest limits on public service in the country. Competition was also introduced into the public sector with attempts to privatize many public services. The manner in which Michigan funded K-12 education was fundamentally changed with the passage of Proposal A. Finally, taxes were cut throughout the decade, including a multi-year tax cut enacted in 1999 that would gradually reduce the personal income tax and phase-out the state’s main business tax—the Single Business Tax.

At the same time the League was in the forefront of the policy debate over social issues, it too was undergoing change. In 1992 the League launched its Nonprofit Insurance Project—a member service for small nonprofit organizations throughout Michigan. The League also underwent a leadership change, as Beverley McDonald retired and Ann Marston took the helm as President & CEO in 1993. And, the League’s stature at the state level began to draw the attention of national organizations and funders.

With funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation the League became part of a broad national effort to measure the well-being of children and use such information to shape policies and practices to improve the lives of children and their families. In 1992, as a partner in Kids Count in Michigan, the League published its first data book and has published a book each year as well as numerous other reports.

In 1995, the League was one of 12 organizations, nationally, to receive funding and support to participate in the State Fiscal Analysis Initiative. Funding from the Ford and Charles Stewart Mott foundations made it possible to intensify the League’s work on budget and tax issues, which included tracking the state’s use of TANF funds and Medicaid expenditures, producing a comprehensive analysis of each year’s state budget and building support for a state Earned Income Tax Credit.

Also in 1995, the Joyce Foundation invited the League to apply for funding to address issues related to the transition from welfare to work in Michigan. That funding enabled the League to expand its work to include analysis of work supports for low-income families and other issues impacting the state’s low-wage workforce.

These grants made it possible for the League to become involved in national networks, and assume leadership roles on the Kids Count Steering Committee and the SFAI Steering Committee.

Throughout the decade the League sharpened its focus on state and local data to document the well-being of children, the economic circumstances of low-income families and individuals and the impact of policy decisions on local communities. Data-driven advocacy became the hallmark of the League’s work.

— Sharon Parks

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