Poverty in Michigan

Sep 23, 2011

A lot of people are worried about what’s been going on in the stock market. I guess I should be, too.  To the extent I have any retirement savings, they are tied up in stock-heavy mutual funds.

But what bothers me much more is what’s going on with poverty in this state. A week from today, we are ending cash welfare assistance to something close to twelve thousand families.

That means close to thirty thousand children will suddenly be utterly dependent on the kindness of strangers. And their numbers will grow, every month.

That’s because earlier this year, the Republicans in the legislature passed a law limiting welfare benefits to four years total in a lifetime. Some said they had to do that to break the cycle of dependence. Others said the state needed to save money, and Michigan will save an estimated seventy-seven million dollars this year by denying these folks welfares.

But my guess is that we’ll pay far more in cash and social costs in the long run. I think that depriving helpless children of benefits is a morally criminal act for which we should be ashamed.

Now before you decide that I am a deadbeat or a limousine liberal, let me say I am neither. I grew up in modest circumstances to poorly educated parents who made little money.

By working relatively hard over the last forty-some years, I managed to claw my way into the educated middle class. I have never been on welfare, never had kids, and pay lots of taxes.

I had no problems at all when the state ended general assistance welfare payments in the nineteen nineties. And programs designed to wean even working poor parents from welfare made a certain amount of sense when the economy was booming.

Yet we are now in near-depression conditions in this state. The non-profit, non-partisan Michigan League for Human Services reported yesterday that our official poverty rate has jumped twenty percent since the recession started.

One out of six Michiganders is poverty-stricken, according to US Census data. That is about one point seven million people. Nearly one out of every four children is poor.

In Detroit, more than half of all kids are living in poverty. These numbers are bound to increase as we kick people off welfare. By the way, our lawmakers also eliminated the back-to-school clothing allowance for poor kids, and put new limits on food assistance. So -- what are those kicked off assistance supposed to do? Most are children are living with single mothers. What would happen to them if their parent got a job?  Of course, with unemployment at eleven percent and rising, that’s unlikely.

What will happen, as State Senator Vincent Gregory says, is that a whole lot of working poor will be pushed into homelessness.

How that is supposed to help any of us is beyond me. It is fashionable now to sneer at President Lyndon Johnson’s idealistic attempts to end poverty in America.

But the war on poverty did drastically reduce the number of poor. And even if it hadn’t, there’s something considerably more noble about failing to lift people up than there is about succeeding at driving people below the poverty line.

If that makes me a liberal, so be it.