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When reading a recent column (“Reform welfare for able-bodied,” April 27), I was hopeful to find a unique perspective. Unfortunately, like most of the current communication on the subject, I discovered the writer starts from a flawed perspective. Benefits are determined using the half-century-old Federal Poverty Guidelines. It accounts for food in a household, no matter the size, and does not consider any other expenses. 

The Federal Poverty Guidelines are old, inaccurate and in need of replacement. The Self Sufficiency Standard for Michigan, commissioned by the Food Bank Council of Michigan, accurately and appropriately depicts the basic needs of over 700 household types across all 83 Michigan counties. It includes rent, child care, utilities, insurance, taxes and, of course, food. The Standard breaks down the salary necessary for self-sufficiency based on household size and accounts for the age and, therefore, needs of any dependents. It is accurate, current and ensures we start with the right information to determine who needs help, how much help they need and for how long. 

Want to know why we are frustrated with low employment and yet the number of people needing assistance remains high? We measure wrong, and we measure wrong because we are using an inaccurate tool. Until we have influencers willing to accept the first responsibility of leadership, to accurately define reality and replace the flawed Federal Poverty Guidelines, we will continue to be frustrated and attempt to fix the blame rather than fix the problem. 

Replacing the antiquated Federal Poverty Guidelines will take political courage and a lot of it. Essentially, the number of people in need will swell because the gap between the two instruments, the federal guidelines and Self Sufficiency Standard, will reveal that we have many working families over the poverty measures in Michigan, but they remain a long way from self-sufficiency. 

There is no question the Food Bank Council of Michigan values work and believes everyone who can work should do so. Work requirements, whether from the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 or the current round of deliberations, must recognize the position they put working families in. 

Famously, Ronald Reagan once stated the “best social program was a job.” This mantra has always been embraced in our work. 

Once a person reaches $11.50 per hour, according to a Michigan Department of Health and Human Services study, they become ineligible for any benefits. In fact, they must make an incredible $17.50 per hour to be level with the benefits received while making $11.50 per hour. This policy and practice de-incentivizes work. To increase your hourly wage by $6 per hour is a gradual climb and so should the descaling of benefits. These policies and practices that drop people off the financial cliff should be as gradual as the climb up. Let’s reward work and help people keep parts of their benefits longer so they can leverage themselves to self-sufficiency. 

Dr. Phillip Knight, executive director

Food Bank Council of Michigan

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