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Column: A pathway to independence

Mike Shirkey

In 1996, President Bill Clinton enacted sweeping changes to the nation’s welfare system. At the time, he said the reform would, “transform a broken system that traps too many people in a cycle of dependence to one that emphasizes the American values of productive work and independence.” Today in Michigan, we have the same opportunity to reform Medicaid in order to support able-bodied adults to receive the training and experience they need to be part of our state’s expanding workforce.

All of us knows someone, or may even be that someone, who has had a hard time finding work and has found themselves in need of assistance. Perhaps more importantly, we know how being in such a position affects a person’s self-esteem. We can also see the changes in a person when they are able to graduate off assistance and find hope and meaning in a job that helps them provide for their family. When employed, individuals feel better about themselves, their families feel more hopeful and empowered, and everyone is healthier for it.

I truly believe a person on Medicaid today does not want to be a person on Medicaid tomorrow. For those in need of a hand up, programs like Medicaid are meant to serve only as a temporary support during a time of crisis. The expansion of Medicaid was never intended as a long-term solution. As in 1996 with welfare reform, Americans today overwhelmingly support proposals to encourage and help able-bodied people on Medicaid to seek employment or training for employment so that they might improve their lives and health.

The idea of assisting Medicaid recipients to find and train for good paying jobs that afford health coverage is among the most popular talked about reforms in America. Why? Because getting people the skills and opportunities to get into the workforce benefits everyone. That is why I introduced legislation that will help encourage and empower able-bodied workers who are on Medicaid to find employment or, at least, the right training to help them become eligible for employment.

Senate Bill 897 would utilize workforce demands to prepare an able-bodied adult for a life of self-sufficiency by requiring 30 hours of work, job training, education or a combination of all in order to receive assistance. As Michigan’s economy has rebounded, it is time for taxpayer sponsored programs to react to economic successes and encourage independence. Virtually every employer across our state identifies lack of available workers as their number one constraint for meeting their customer demands. Our duty as legislators is to update our programs to encourage able-bodied adults to engage and take advantage of employment opportunities.

Opponents of this legislation will likely say that Republicans are forcing the medically frail to work. That is not true. My bill only applies to able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 64 and provides exceptions for several factors. Opponents will also say that this bill is out of touch with the demands of being a parent in need and does not consider the cost of child care outweighing the benefits of employment. Another fallacy. There are programs available to assist with the cost of child care to give eligible parents the opportunity to work and ultimately give their children a better life.

Government programs should be temporary safety nets that include and incentivize pathways toward self-sufficiency, rather than programs that discourage our citizens from seeking better opportunities and a better life.

Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, represents Michigan’s 16th Senate district and chairs the Senate Health Policy and Michigan Competitiveness Committees.