This column originally appeared in Michigan Advance on October 24, 2020
The more precarious a person’s position, the more important a strong, secure safety net is. That has been crystallized by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has jeopardized millions of Michiganders’ jobs, housing, health, food security and more.
Michigan kids, workers and parents continue to face unprecedented challenges due to COVID-19, especially Black and Brown residents, families with lower incomes or those struggling with unemployment. During these tough times, the governor and the Republican-led Legislature worked together on the Fiscal 2021 state budget to invest in the state programs and services that are needed most right now, including funding increases for Medicaid, the Healthy Michigan Plan, child care, food access and many of the Michigan League for Public Policy’s other key policy priorities.
In addition to this positive budget news, the Legislature also recently passed an emergency extension of the state’s unemployment benefits from 20 to 26 weeks. This legislation was urgently needed after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s initial executive order to expand the state’s unemployment benefits was struck down by the Michigan Supreme Court. Unfortunately, this was part of a broader agreement to enact liability protections for businesses during the health crisis — at the expense of workers’ rights and safety — that the League opposes, the action to extend unemployment was still extremely important.
The bipartisan embrace of and investment in the state’s health and human services programs — the safety net between our people and disaster — has certainly been a pleasant surprise these past few months. But while policymakers have risen to the occasion at this moment in time, they need to work to raise all boats for all time.
The ongoing threat of COVID-19 clearly transcends county and party lines. As it continues to impact every area of the state, policymakers need to put their political differences aside for the good of all Michiganders. While this global health crisis has rekindled the importance of these public assistance programs now, the state needs to also better support them and the people they serve in the future. This includes undoing overly stringent policies and restoring benefit cuts that have made the state’s unemployment and food and cash assistance programs less efficient and effective, undercutting their express purpose.
Many of these policy improvements that could be particularly beneficial to families right now are things the Michigan League for Public Policy has been championed for years. These recommendations include permanently extending state unemployment benefits from 20 weeks back to 26 weeks, restoring the state Earned Income Tax Credit from 6% to 20% of the federal credit, eliminating the 48-month lifetime limit on cash assistance, increasing the income eligibility for child care subsidies, and undoing the misguided policy that takes cash assistance benefits away from struggling families if their children are truant.
Struggling Michigan families have endured these egregious limitations for too long, and with COVID-19, it’s time for policymakers to revisit these misguided changes.
As a data-driven organization, the League looks at the numbers. And the numbers show that these programs have been effective in reducing caseloads — the main intent — but they have not significantly reduced poverty or the need for these programs.
And as a people-powered organization, we have been hearing stories for years from hardworking families who are having a hard time accessing the services they’re eligible for, getting kicked off of programs prematurely, seeing benefits run out before their time of crisis has, being falsely accused of fraud, and more. And these stories are sadly becoming even more commonplace due to COVID-19, and will continue to be for months or even years ahead.
There’s a reason these programs are called the “safety net ”— they help Michiganders bounce back when they’ve fallen on hard times. But past policy decisions have left the safety net strained and frayed.
This pandemic has shown that any of us can find ourselves in a position where we need assistance, and that the state must create a stronger and more responsive safety net that can help residents in difficult times. But too many Michigan families were in crisis before COVID-19 hit, and will be in crisis after this health threat has subsided, and we need to be thinking about them, as well.
Lawmakers were able to bring a fresh, more appreciative perspective to these health and human services programs in the 2021 budget. Now they need to keep working together to translate that into more permanent, productive changes that will help more people now and down the road.