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Welfare chief Corrigan leaves a legacy of reform

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Maura Corrigan stepped down as head of the state's welfare agency this week with nearly 350,000 fewer Michiganians receiving food assistance and a 66 percent reduction in people receiving cash payments from taxpayers after her four years on the job.

Corrigan also beefed up the child protective services division, adding 976 full-time caseworkers to bring relief to a child welfare system she viewed as plagued by backlogs when she was a Michigan Supreme Court justice.

But the biggest reform Corrigan has quietly pursued will be left to her successors. In November, the department submitted a proposal to the federal government seeking to create a first-time pilot program tying food stamp eligibility to skilled trades training.

The Department of Human Services proposed creating a voluntary program for food stamp recipients in Wayne, Genesee and Saginaw counties to help about 500 unemployed adults with school-aged children and youth aging out of the foster care system get job training in nursing, welding and manufacturing.

Corrigan said requiring able-bodied adults to be employed or get work training as a stipulation for getting taxpayer assistance with their grocery bills is a necessary step to end government dependency that has stretched for "generations."

"You shouldn't have a dream of a $450-a-month check or $200 or $175 in food assistance. It's a limiting dream," Corrigan said in an interview with The Detroit News.

Corrigan, 66, of Grosse Pointe Park is leaving Gov. Rick Snyder's administration to focus on being a grandmother and work part time for an undisclosed Washington, D.C., think tank after a lengthy legal career that stretched from the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office to the chief justice's chambers in the Michigan Hall of Justice.

Her actions at DHS have drawn criticism and praise — and sometimes both from close observers of the state's social welfare policies.

"Director Corrigan has definitely been a positive advocate for foster kids, and that seems to be her real passion," said Karen Holcomb-Merrill, vice president of the Michigan League for Public Policy. "However, harsh policies under her leadership have made it harder for low-income kids and their families to get food assistance and cash assistance."

Corrigan's supporters, particularly those in the Republican-controlled Legislature, praise her work to boost the state's adoption placement rate, rein in the state's welfare rolls and strictly enforce a 48-month lifetime cap on cash assistance payments for able-bodied adults.

"She did a really good job of allowing people who truly needed help to get that help, while getting the gamers off of the system," said Sen. Bruce Caswell, R-Hillsdale, who chaired the Senate subcommittee in charge of the DHS budget.

With the help of the Legislature, Corrigan instituted asset checks for Michiganians getting food stamps, forced more recipients to enroll in work-training programs, and had her department cross-check names on the welfare rolls with lottery winners.

She also was instrumental in getting legislation passed that allows foster children to remain legal members of their foster families while in college, Caswell said.

This month, state attorneys asked a federal judge to end four years of oversight of the department's foster care and child welfare programs that began as a result of a lawsuit against DHS before Corrigan became director.

On Monday, Snyder tapped Nick Lyon, director of the Department of Community Health, to run DHS on an interim basis. Lyon said getting the child welfare programs out from underneath federal oversight remains a top priority.

"I hope I can be successful in carrying through her legacy in what she's done for children," Lyon told The News.

'It was worth the effort'

When Corrigan arrived at DHS in 2011, 22 percent of cash assistance recipients were enrolled in work training programs or maintaining partial employment. Now more than 62 percent are learning job skills or working, Corrigan said, bringing the state into compliance with a federal requirement of 50 percent enrollment.

"I think it's an entitlement culture issue. There's a certain expectation that the law has that people will be responsible and that they will take advantage of education training. ... that wasn't being enforced during the recession."

Corrigan also got legislative approval to clarify a 2007 state law instituting the 48-month lifetime benefits cap that Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm's administration had not enforced during the economic recession. Lifetime limits resulted in about 20,000 cases being closed, Corrigan said.

"It was worth the effort because people need to understand consequences," she said. "And people began to understand that they need to be responsible for themselves and their future."

Critics say the outgoing director's successes are misplaced.

"Her measure of success is how few people get benefits. The question used to be: Who needs help and how can we help them?" said Edward Hoort, interim director of the Center for Civil Justice in Flint.

The Center for Civil Justice has sued Corrigan and DHS on multiple occasions in recent years and lost a battle over the 48-month lifetime cash assistance limit.

Hoort said Corrigan's actions against adults on welfare harmed the lives of children she's trying to help through other programs.

"The majority of people receiving assistance are working and the majority of people receiving food stamps are children," Hoort said. "Why are we happy when we cut them off?"

Holcomb-Merrill said the asset tests have been counterproductive to Corrigan's mission to help people get out of poverty. "If you have to get rid of a vehicle, then how are you going to get to work?" she asked.

Work requirements

Corrigan would not disclose for which Washington think tank she'll work. She said the organization would make a public announcement next month.

But Corrigan said her emphasis will be on pushing for reforms of social welfare programs at the federal level, which often dictates the actions of the states.

In the farm bill signed by President Barack Obama at Michigan State University in April, Congress set aside $250 million over nine years for pilot projects designed to reduce dependency on food stamps and increase working among recipients of the aid.

Corrigan was among a group of policymakers from across the country who had input on the program.

The proposed pilot program, called "Better Off Working," calls for getting 1,512 food stamp recipients over three years to agree to job training and intervention by "success coaches" through the Michigan department's "Pathways to Potential" program.

The program also would recruit another 1,512 food stamp recipients in Wayne, Saginaw and Genesee counties to use existing job training programs and compare the work-placement outcomes of the two groups.

Corrigan said she hopes the program gets federal approval. "I believe every single welfare program ought to have a work requirement in it," she said.

clivengood@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3660

Twitter.com/ChadLivengood