Michigan leaders stick it to poor people once again

Jan 9, 2017

One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons showed a judge looking down at a defendant and asking, “So – just how much justice can you afford?” Judges never say things like that, or at least I hope not. But the system sort of does, whether we admit it or not.

If you doubt that, consider this: Let’s say some state agency went after Dick and Betsy DeVos and accused them of defrauding the taxpayers out of money. They were not only ordered to pay it back; they were then assessed a fine four times the size of what they got…

Plus interest. If they didn’t pay all that immediately, their assets would be seized and their paychecks garnisheed. Let’s say all that happened, and then the state said, “Hey, you know what? That was just a dumb computer error. I guess we’ll give you your money back.”

Let’s say that same agency did the same to another 21,000 rich people. How long do you think that would have been tolerated? What do you think would have happened to the head of that agency? Do you suppose she would have kept her job?

Well, guess what. That scenario actually did happen. Not to the DeVoses, but to 21,000 other Michiganders, over at least a two-year time period. But there was a difference. By and large, these were poor people who filed for unemployment insurance.

The state turned things over to a computer system called MIDAS to determine who was committing fraud, and then went after those the computer identified as having done so. Assets were seized, and wages garnisheed. But in 93 percent of the cases, the computers were wrong. Sure, some lawsuits were filed.

But most of the victims were relatively poor and not especially well connected. Folks like that often feel helpless against the system. Still, it should have been clear something was radically wrong. Luke Shaefer, an associate professor who heads the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions initiative, told me “they’ve had evidence that this was a major problem for a long time. I don’t understand why it took so long.” With that, I suddenly got a sharp sense of déjà vu.

This seemed like Flint all over again. Then as now, the Snyder administration was reluctant to admit error, and more reluctant to take action against those responsible. It took months after the governor finally admitted there was lead in the water before he fired the head of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

In both cases, the governor seemed to have curious deficiencies, a lack of recognition of the magnitude of the problem and a lack of empathy for those affected.

Late last year, when it was becoming clear what the Unemployment Insurance Agency had done, the governor told the Detroit Free Press

“It’s not a good thing. The system didn’t work well,” and aide characterized it as a “customer service problem.”

My guess is that those who had their meager assets wrongly confiscated might use another term. Nor has the governor fired anyone over this scandal. Sharon Moffett-Massey, who was in charge of the agency, was only “reassigned,” presumably at full salary.

There’s something wrong with this picture, something involving cold indifference, incompetence, and justice that some people, sadly, apparently are too poor to afford.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's Senior news analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.