Hearings on Deaf Ears?

On October 1, 2011 over 11,000 families and nearly 30,000 children were removed from the state’s Family Independence Program (FIP) caseload in Michigan. However, a federal judge ordered a temporary injunction halting these cuts saying that the state did not give enough notice to the families being removed from cash assistance of the state’s intent to remove them. On November 1, 2011 however, approximately 40,000 people lost their cash assistance, which averaged just over $500 a month, just as the cold weather moves in and the holiday season is upon us.

It is possible for families to appeal their loss of benefits and receive a hearing to look into it. This sounds as if some families may be given the chance to at least understand the rationale as to why they have lost assistance, or even have the decision to cut off their assistance overturned. However, with so many appeals coming in, the Department of Human Services (DHS) has taken to reviewing cases this week—over 500 cases a day, under a “rocket docket” approach.

While it is a nice gesture to allow families to appeal their case closure, doing so in such a rapid manner gives families a false sense of empowerment and does not allow for real answers for families that are already wondering how to pay rent next month.

The timing on this couldn’t be worse. While the October 1 deadline missed the start of the school year, the loss in cash assistance benefits for so many children and families comes just as the temperatures fall. In addition, unemployment remains high, wages remain stagnant and in turn, the poverty rate continues to rise. Unfortunately, this means that communities of color, and therefore, children of color, will be hit hardest by losing assistance.

In Michigan, the African American unemployment rate has been more than double that of whites and many of those who are unemployed have children who depend on their income, or lack thereof. This goes hand in hand with data from DHS which states that of all children who were slated to lose assistance, approximately 90 percent are children of color. Families, and children in those families will be pushed even deeper into poverty and it has been shown time and time again that childhood poverty has a direct negative impact on future outcomes. This fact is striking across every racial/ethnic group, but particularly among children of color.

As people look for assistance in their community, United Way 2-1-1 call centers, a resource families were originally directed to check into, may be bearing the brunt of it. While this will place more stress on agencies that are already stretched to the bone, ranging from workforce development agencies to homeless shelters, working with 2-1-1 and other community partners may be the best way to figure out how this devastating policy changes will impact families once their cases have been closed.

-Jacqui Broughton