LANSING, Mich. — Some low-income Michigan families would have to pass drug tests and make sure their children don’t miss too many days of school in order to qualify for welfare benefits, under legislation being considered by the state Legislature.
Supporters say the bills, taken up by the House Families, Children and Seniors Committee this past week, are designed to protect against the misuse of taxpayer dollars and boost school attendance. But some say the measures unfairly penalize low-income families without addressing the deeper problems.
“It’s hard for me to really understand what the impetus is for this myriad of bills ... that seem to want to punish welfare recipients,” said Gilda Jacobs, president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy.
Legislation recently approved by the committee and now heading to the House floor would allow for suspicion-based substance abuse screening and testing for people applying for and receiving benefits in the family independence assistance program. The Department of Human Services would start screening in certain, yet-to-be determined, counties next April.
Republican Rep. Jeff Farrington of Utica said he introduced the bill after hearing from constituents who were concerned their taxpayer dollars were being used to pay for drugs. The department says the proposal isn’t about saving money, but helping those on assistance get clean.
Under a recent change in the bill — which Farrington said was encouraged by Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration — people who test positive for the first time would be referred to a substance abuse treatment center and would continue receiving benefits throughout their treatment.
But if they drop out of the treatment or test positive for a second time, their assistance would be dropped, Farrington said.
“They had their chance,” Farrington said. “If they don’t want to take that opportunity to get back on the right track, then they don’t deserve to have the cash assistance.”
Cassandra Walker is a volunteer with the Westside Mothers Welfare Rights Organization in Detroit, which helps people navigate the state’s welfare system. Walker, who spent four years on welfare, called the proposal a personal swipe at the poor and an invasion of privacy.
She said families use cash assistance to pay for items such as rent and utility bills. The average monthly benefit for a family of three is $492 a month, according to the Michigan League for Public Policy.
“The money is not being wasted,” Walker said. “There are some cases where it might, but that happens the same way in government. I bet that’s happening in Lansing,” she said.
Jacobs said addressing substance abuse problems is important and acknowledged that people often have to be drug-tested before starting a new job. But she said the state must ensure that substance abuse centers are well-funded so people don’t lose their benefits because they can’t receive the help they need.
Another bill, which has yet to be voted on in committee, would strip a family of benefits in the family independence program if a child under the age of 16 doesn’t meet school attendance requirements. DHS put the policy in place in October, but this bill would write the policy into law to ensure it continues in future governors’ administrations.
“This is a priority of the (Snyder) administration, to ensure that education remains a prime mover for helping our children escape the grip of generational poverty, and to that end having current policy supported strongly by the force of law would be a benefit moving forward with combating truancy statewide,” department spokesman Dave Akerly said in an email.
It’s meant to provide an incentive for families to send their children to school, but DHS officials told the committee it is too early to say whether the new policy has impacted school attendance rates.
Walker said parents sometimes have little control over whether their teenagers are actually making it into the classroom. “If the child is absent so many days, the whole family gets turned off of benefits,” she said. “How much sense does that make?”
Excessive school absences are not exclusive to one socio-economic class and therefore shouldn’t be treated as solely an issue for lower-income families, Jacobs said.
“If we truly want to address keeping children in school, there are other ways to do it and not this punitive measure,” Lisa Ruby, a public benefits attorney for the Michigan Poverty Law Program, told the committee. She suggested implementing innovative programs that make children want to come to school, but that takes funding.
Lawmakers say the measure is not meant to punish families or save the state money. “It’s about saving kids, saving lives and putting kids in the best position to be successful,” said Rep. Al Pscholka, a Stevensville Republican who is sponsoring the legislation.
But Walker said she worries about the impact the two measures will have on families that sometimes need state support to get back up on their feet, like after losing a job.
“We want to stand up on our own, but some people do need a helping hand,” she said.