Thursday, July 24, 2008

Michigan's social safety net still full of holes

Our social safety net is porous. It’s a net after all, not a helmet or steel-toed boots or safety glasses. Nets have holes. Stuff slips through. People slip through. Families. Children.

This week, Michigan legislators increased state cash assistance to poor families via the Family Independence Program by $1 per month per person – a cool $12 per year. According to the Michigan League for Human Services (MLHS) this is the first across the board increase in the monthly grant in 18 years. This increase isn't going to strengthen the safety net.

“We think it’s a positive symbol that needy families receiving cash assistance are finally getting recognized in the budget, but you have to keep it in perspective because the buying power of the grant has eroded steadily over the years,’’ said Sharon Parks, president and CEO of the League, in a press release.

While it may be a positive symbol, the $1 increase is also a shameful embarrassment. Next year, a family of three will receive $36 more per year in their FIP grant. If you’ve gassed your car lately, you know $36 doesn’t buy a tankful. The buying power of the dollar continues to erode. Good thing the Family Independence Program is intended to cover rent. So how much do families that qualify actually receive?

Prior to the $1 increase, a single parent with two children received $489 a month. Unfortunately, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Michigan is $627. To make ends meet recipients can also seek food stamps or federal housing subsidies. Recipients can even work. But if they earn a bit more than $300, they lose their FIP. The rules of the system push them toward independence through the holes in the safety net.

“There are plenty of families for whom this is their main income,” said Judy Putnam, communications coordinator for the MLHS. In the first quarter of 2008, 58 percent of families receiving FIP had no earned income. Children in those families do not benefit from cash income beyond the FIP grant.

The FIP assistance amounts to just 35 percent of the poverty level. In Michigan, the 2007 poverty level for a single parent with two children was $16,705.

In June 75,848 families received cash assistance from the Family Independence Program. This included about 150,000 children. Imagine the combined populations of St. Claire Shores and Farmington Hills as poor hungry children. Anybody got an extra dollar?