Michigan cuts welfare for 'able-bodied' adults

October 07, 1991|By Don Terry | Don Terry,New York Times News Service

DETROIT -- For Ruth Williams, a middle-aged grandmother who says she has asthma, high-blood pressure and phlebitis, the welfare check for $87.50 she received twice a month from the state of Michigan "was like a life raft."

"I'm poor, very poor," she said. "The check wasn't much, but it gave me a chance to feel like a human being."

On Tuesday, the checks stopped coming.

Faced with a budget deficit and hoping to end "welfare dependency," the state Legislature eliminated the general assistance welfare program for more than 80,000 adults who are so poor that they can typically have no more than a car worth $1,500.

Most states have some form of general assistance welfare program for poor, able-bodied adults without children. Now Michigan, after years of providing some of the nation's broadest welfare coverage, has rescinded welfare benefits for such people, joining a small but growing number of states that deny them aid.

"We don't have the money to pay for everything anymore," said John Truscott, a spokesman for Gov. John Engler, a Republican. "And it's forcing us to make some very painful and difficult decisions."

It is a refrain that can be heard across the country. Next month, Maryland, faced with budget problems of its own, may also eliminateits general assistance program, cutting off payments to 24,000 adults, unless its governor and legislators come up with an alternate plan to cut a $450 million deficit.

Many recipients of general assistance, experts on welfare issues say, are the walking wounded of society. They fall through the cracks of other programs; either they are too young for Social PTC Security or too healthy for disability. They are often homeless, and many have been in and out of mental institutions or drug treatment centers.

Typically, recipients are single men with poor educations and few job skills, experts say. But in Michigan, 46 percent of the recipients were women, many of them divorced or widowed homemakers in their 40s and 50s. As the economy darkens, many recipients are low-level workers, such as Richard Burnell, 49, a Detroit florist's assistant, who have lost their jobs and have exhausted unemployment benefits.

"A lot of people coming into welfare offices are people who have never been on aid before," said Julie Strawn of the Center on Budget andPolicy Priorities, a not-for-profit research organization in Washington. "They're not necessarily all people who fit public stereotypes. But I don't think the public really understands how important GA is as the program of last resort. There is nothing else for people when GA goes away. Nothing."

The Engler administration, which pressed for the elimination of the general assistance program, repeatedly uses the words "able-bodied" and "employable" to describe those who have been taken from the welfare rolls.

But Mr. Truscott acknowledged that not all recipients fit into those categories; he said several thousand former aid recipients could start receiving checks again if they were determined by a doctor or psychiatrist to be physically or mentally unable to work. The state's average monthly payment for general assistance was $144 plus food stamps.

Before Michigan eliminated its general assistance program, the federal Department of Health and Human Services in 1990 listed six states that deny all benefits to single adults: Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Tennessee, West Virginia and Louisiana. In the last year, several other states have debated reducing their welfare programs.

Ending the program in Michigan is expected to save the state $240 million. In addition, the legislature, in which Democrats control the House and Republicans the Senate, cut $260 million from other social service programs.

Saving money is only one motive for eliminating the general assistance program, which has long been a target of conservatives. Mr. Truscott said the governor hoped to end "welfare dependency" by forcing "thousands of able-bodied people to find work."

"The jobs are out there," he said. "They may be minimum wage, butmost people will be able to find one. And if they work full time at just minimum wage they could make twice as much as they did on GA."

Currently, there are more than 400,000 unemployed people in Michigan, a rate of 9.7 percent.

"The state has just increased the number of people looking for work by a fourth," said Sharon Parks of the Michigan League of Human Services in Lansing. "And this is during a recession when jobs are scarce. It's crazy." The public perception of general assistance, Mrs. Parks said, is of welfare rolls filled with able-bodied people too lazy to work.

State Rep. David Jaye was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, "The most important thing is, we took $300 million out of welfare for single, healthy employable adults and said, 'Get a job or hit the road, Jack.' We can't afford it anymore. These people are going to have to go cold turkey."

People say they are selling their food stamps to pay telephone bills and rent. Others mumble about "doing whatever it takes to survive."

Shirley Johns, director of the Community Service and Referral Center in Lansing, recently recounted told the AP the advice she gives to those left without food or shelter: "I tell them to commit a simple larceny. Especially if they're sick, I tell them to do that," to get arrested and sent to jail.

"I explain to them it's a roof over their head," she said. "It's free food, free medical treatment for their pneumonia."

Joyce Pelcher, 62, said, "If I have to, I'll sell my food stamps to pay my rent. Then when I run out, I'll go to the mission to eat."

"No, you won't," Mrs. Williams said. "The missions are turning people away. The missions are closing, too."

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