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Michigan's legislature is punishing the poor

Apr 19, 2018

The Michigan legislature is unwilling to properly fix the roads or repair the rest of our crumbling infrastructure. But there is something they are eager to do: Make life more difficult for poor people who qualify for Medicaid under the Healthy Michigan plan. 

Five years ago, the federal government decided that those who made just slightly more than the rock-bottom poverty level, and didn’t have health insurance, could qualify for Medicaid.

Washington would pay all the costs at first. Lansing would never be stuck with paying more than ten percent. Governor Rick Snyder was enthusiastic. His sensible outlook was that this would result in a healthier Michigan workforce.

But many of his fellow Republicans howled that this was another expansion of big government, meaning a subsidy for people who lacked lobbyists and couldn’t donate to their campaigns. But after several tries, the legislature passed it.

The Snyder Administration thought 400,000 people might eventually sign up for Healthy Michigan. As of this week, almost 700,000 have.

Most of these people are working poor between the ages of 19 and 64. They genuinely can’t afford health care -- you can’t qualify if your annual household income is more than $33,000 dollars for a family of four, or $16,000 for one person.

Want to try raising a family of four on that?

They also don’t get “totally free health care;” there are small co-pays, unless you are dying in hospice.

But the Republicans in the legislature are obsessed with the idea that somebody down on their luck might get something for nothing. So this week, they are ramming a bill through the state senate that would establish a work requirement – 29 hours a week --to continue to qualify for health care under Healthy Michigan or Medicaid of any kind.

“There’s a lot of merit there. This will help them become self-sufficient,” said Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof. It will do nothing of the kind. I don’t know if Meekhof is much of a reader, but his eyes might be opened if he read U of M Professor Luke Shaefer’s book, Two Dollars a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America.

These folks by and large do work, except for those who are caregivers for children or disabled adults. There are some who want to work, but can’t find jobs they can get to.

By the way, if the legislature passes this and Governor Snyder allows it to become law, it won’t save taxpayers money. It will cost us. It will mean creating a bureaucratic apparatus to keep tabs on people and spy on them.

State Senator Mike Shirkey, the main sponsor, was honest enough to admit to the Gongwer News Service that “this isn’t being done to save money.” He went on, however, to posture, saying it was being done to make sure “we have the resources necessary” to help those who really need it.

No, it’s not. It’s being done in pursuit of an ideological agenda that includes punishing the poor.

Oh, they did make a couple concessions. The work requirement won’t apply to those who are pregnant or mentally disabled. I guess you could call that humanitarianism. Personally, I’d rather Meekhof and Shirkey go read the end of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

And, may common decency bless us, every one.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political 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.