Introduction to Michigan Welfare Reform

The nation has changed dramatically since 1935 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed the program currently known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). It was a program conceived to help widows and their children, or the occasional family deserted by the husband and father. Most women did not work outside the home, and divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing were infrequent occurrences.

Today, the vast majority of women work at jobs away from home, single parenthood has become more commonplace, and the focus of the AFDC program has also changed. Instead of being limited to widows and children, it assists all types of families. Many require only temporary help while recovering from an unexpected crisis. However, AFDC also provides long-term, almost permanent assistance to families who become dependent on "the system" and never achieve self-sufficiency. According to a recent study, 21.9 percent of recipients need help for less than 24 months, but over 57 percent are on assistance for more than four years. Many inequities and inconsistencies actually weaken families rather than strengthen them.

We must change that! We must equip all people in Michigan with the job skills needed to succeed. Then we must assure incentives or requirements for them to seek a job, take a job, and to keep it. And jobs must be available. The private sector must be involved in the development of employment for those people who have acquired the skills.

The current system does not provide sufficient incentives for people to get off the welfare rolls, both nationally and in Michigan. We are constantly reminded of the major barriers facing families who are trying to become self-supporting:

  • The cost of health care benefits.
  • The cost of quality child care.
  • The lack of adequate and dependable transportation.

Michigan's welfare system must move away from an emphasis on long-term dependency and develop a sharp, new focus on job training, job readiness, keeping families together and achieving independence. The federal Family Support Act of 1988 recognizes the growing national problem of welfare dependency. To carry out the mandates of that Act in Michigan and return AFDC to the status of providing temporary assistance, I am proposing a number of initiatives which will help people become employable and make employment more beneficial and attractive than public assistance.

With increased emphasis on strengthening Michigan families, we have the opportunity to change parts of the social services system that have become institutionally ingrained over time. The President has committed to help states make changes by waiving certain federal rules and regulations that impede provision of needed services in the area of public assistance. I plan to take advantage of his offer. And I am committed to working with the legislature to remove state-level barriers to client self-support and self-sufficiency, as well as aggressively pursuing needed federal changes.

Most DSS employees share the general public's frustration with certain policies and requirements that have been imposed by the system. As we move forward to change Michigan's public assistance system, concerned employees will be energized by this ability to make changes which they have long desired. They have been frustrated too long and now we will call on them to help make this system work.

It is critical that we truly streamline the process--through both reduced paperwork requirements and increased use of automated technology. Workers will be able to spend more time helping the families they serve and less time gathering information from them to meet bureaucratic requirements. With the increased capabilities of computer systems like LINK and the long-awaited automated eligibility system, Automated Social Services Information Support System (ASSIST), workers will begin to be relieved from the repetitive documentation now required of them. Michigan's new Child Support Enforcement System (CSES) will also help not only workers in DSS but also Friends of the Court and prosecuting attorneys statewide. We will also continue to expand our automation efforts in the service area, to free up worker time and allow more human help in providing services for clients.

We will continue to make changes that reduce workloads as long as the reduction helps to strengthen Michigan families. Michigan's social services agency has been on the cutting edge of change nationally for several decades in areas such as child support collections, innovative funding sources and federal demonstration projects. It has received many national awards for its leadership and innovation in areas like Families First, Michigan Opportunity and Skills Training (MOST) program, and the Wayne County Food-Stamp error rate reduction effort. We now have the opportunity and the challenge to actually do things differently, without the inflexible restrictions of the past to stifle creativity. The key to the success of these efforts will be the dedication of our state employees, local community organizations, all levels of government and individual citizens who are committed to make a difference.