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Whitmer makes it easier to get state food, cash assistance

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Whitmer administration said Thursday it plans to make it easier for low-income residents to receive government aid for food and cash by increasing thresholds on personal assets.

The asset limits for food assistance, cash assistance and so-called emergency relief will increase to $15,000 on Nov. 1, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and administration officials said. The current asset limits, which are different from income limits, range from $500 to $5,000.

Robert Gordon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, speaks at a press conference in Lansing on Thursday (Oct. 17, 2019), announcing increases to asset limits for food and cash assistance.

The current limits punish families who save money, said Robert Gordon, director of the Michigan Department Health and Human Services. Gordon used the example of a waitress who saves $20 a week for five years while raising children.

"She gets laid off, comes to us for help. We tell her she has to tap her savings before we can help her," Gordon said during a press conference at the Greater Lansing Food Bank. 

The policy changes would increase the asset limit for the state's food assistance program, which Michigan calls the federal Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.

The current asset limit for the program in Michigan is $5,000, which was set by Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder's administration. Under the Whitmer administration's change, the limit would jump to $15,000, and vehicles would be removed from the asset check.

Gilda Jacobs, president of the Michigan League for Public Policy and a Democratic former lawmaker, called Snyder's asset limit policy "very cruel and sort of unusual punishment for people who are struggling every day to make ends meet."

Under the changes, the asset limit for the state's cash assistance program, known as the Family Independence Program, will increase from $3,000 to $15,000.

And the asset limit for state emergency relief, which provides assistance in situations threatening health and safety, such as utility shutoffs, will increase from $500 to $15,000. The Whitmer administration had increased that limit on June 1 from $50 to $500.

The income limitations for the programs, which vary, won't change. For food assistance, the income limit is 130 percent of the federal poverty level, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Sandy Karnes of Okemos volunteers at the Greater Lansing Food Bank on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, the same day state officials visited the food bank to announce increases in asset limits for food and cash assistance.

Sen. Peter MacGregor, R-Rockford, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Health and Human Services Subcommittee, said he wants to hold a joint hearing with the Senate Health Policy Committee on the asset limit changes within the next 10 days.

MacGregor said he wants to learn more about the changes but acknowledged the department can make the changes without  input from lawmakers.

"Legislative efforts need a signature by the governor, right?" MacGregor said, adding that "We just need to understand what the problem is they're trying to solve and how these changes will solve those issues."

In the House, Rep. Matt Maddock, R-Milford, said he was disappointed by the administration's move. Maddock said working as a bail bondsman, he had seen fraud and waste involving the use of the assistance programs.

"We have a tremendous obligation to protect this system for people who really need it," he said.

"As a legislative body, we need to discuss and debate this," Maddock added. "That's our job."

In another move, the Department of Health and Human Services will begin on Nov. 1 accepting only a statement of assets from applicants rather than requiring them to complete an asset verification checklist.

The increased limits will help cut red tape and help people access the assistance they need, Whitmer said.

“Right now, there are too many Michigan families that are struggling to get ahead,” the Democratic governor said during the press conference.

The state didn't have projections on how many more people would be eligible for assistance under the new policy, Gordon said. But  there would still be income limits and the largest shift would occur in the food assistance program, which is federally funded, he said.