Column: Michigan needs welfare policy for the next decade
Welfare policies created during part of Michigan’s “lost decade” of the 2000s are trapping people in dependency while crowding out taxpayer spending on schools, roads, water infrastructure and other critical priorities. It’s long past time for Michigan to return to the successful bipartisan model of the 1990s, where programs like Medicaid and food stamps were better focused on moving able-bodied adults from welfare to work as quickly as possible.
Bipartisan welfare reforms of the 1990s instituted work requirements for many able-bodied adults receiving food stamps and cash welfare. Within just a few years, millions of Americans left welfare and went back to work. But federal loopholes have allowed states to undermine that progress through loopholes and exemptions. Waivers meant for periods of economic crises have been abused by bureaucrats to keep as many able-bodied adults dependent on welfare as possible.
Even though the state’s unemployment rate has today fallen to its lowest level since 2001, these waivers remain largely in effect. According to state officials, nearly 175,000 able-bodied, childless adults in their prime working years are still receiving food stamps. These adults can and should be working — but waivers and exemptions have left nearly 85 percent of them exempt from the work requirement. And with no work requirement in place, few work full-time.
Michigan is experiencing near-record low unemployment and employers desperately looking to fill thousands of open jobs. The state’s Pure Michigan Talent Connect job search website lists 97,000 open jobs in the state — 35,000 of which are classified as “entry level.” The Help Wanted Online job database lists 140,000 open jobs posted online by Michigan employers. And most of the job openings being created don’t require extensive education credentials, past experience, or significant job training. Nearly three-quarters of the job openings between now and 2019 are expected to require a high school education or less, according to the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget. Nearly four out of five job openings require no training or less than a month’s training on-the-job, while nearly 90 percent require no prior experience.
Work requirements are the single best tools we have to move able-bodied adults out of dependency. In states that have adopted these reforms, adults have found jobs in more than 600 different industries, time spent on welfare has been cut in half, incomes have more than doubled, and those leaving welfare are now better off.
The work requirements under consideration in the Michigan Legislature are powerful, practical and popular. Able-bodied adults should work, train, or volunteer at least part-time in order to receive benefits. These requirements don’t apply to poor children, seniors, individuals with disabilities, those participating in substance abuse rehabilitation programs, or individuals otherwise not physically or mentally fit for employment. These are commonsense requirements are supported by 74 percent of Michigan voters.
If policymakers want to get Michigan to work, the Legislature and governor should act immediately to re-institute work requirements that will move people off welfare and into good jobs.
Jonathan Ingram is vice president of research at the Foundation for Government Accountability.