January 29, 2020

The Cruelty is the Point

Guest Opinion
By Amy Kerr Hardin | Dec. 21, 2019

Several years ago, Michigan’s Republican lawmakers tried a little experiment. They launched a pilot program in three counties to get an idea of how many public assistance recipients were also drug users. They didn’t nab a single soul. Turns out, the working poor, often laboring at two or three jobs just to keep the lights on, don’t have illicit drug money on hand. Republicans literally “pissed-away” taxpayer dollars on their folly. 
 
Conservatives harbor a pernicious prejudice against those struggling in our economy, and they’ve demonstrated a pattern of routinely punishing those in poverty, even when their legislative assaults cost a bundle to implement and administer. Instead of winning the war on poverty, they are waging a war on the poor.
 
Their latest battleground is healthcare for those in need. Medicaid, known as “Healthy Michigan,” covers over a half-million Michiganders. Under the Snyder administration, the Republican-led legislature sought an exemption to the federal law so they could impose a work requirement on Medicaid recipients. Michigan is one of nine states with such a law. Of those states, five have active lawsuits opposing the law. Federal courts have already struck down these types of requirements in three other states.
 
The Trump Administration, not known for their compassion, is actively fighting the nullification of the work-requirement laws. They recently took up an appeal in the D.C. Circuit Court, where they utterly fumbled their oral arguments.
 
Groups representing the Medicaid recipient plaintiffs are asserting that the waivers granted by the Trump Administration lack legal basis in the spirit and letter of the federal Medicaid law, and the courts thus far concur.
 
Some would argue that compliance shouldn’t be a problem if those on assistance are already working a couple of jobs, right?
 
Nope. This requirement is specifically designed to be an act of insidious cruelty.
 
By way of example, Arkansas turned its most vulnerable citizens into human guinea pigs to test their new law, and they quickly saw thousands of state residents unnecessarily lose healthcare. Not because they weren’t working — the majority of Medicaid beneficiaries are gainfully employed. The reason they lost coverage was because the Arkansas law, just like Michigan’s, was intentionally drafted to be over-the-top burdensome for the recipients to comply with its rigorous monthly reporting requirements. They are being set up to fail, to the amusement of the GOP.
 
Inexplicably, Michigan’s legislature continues to push for full implementation of this draconian Arkansas-style law, due to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020. The rollout is fleecing taxpayers because the courts will surely strike the measure down.
 
To no avail, Governor Whitmer asked the legislature to put the law on hold while challenges work their way through the judiciary. Litigation is not a speedy process, and one can’t help but wonder how many wrongful death suits will be filed against the state after the courts have their say. The ill-advised implementation of the program is sure to cost the state millions and is once again proof that Republicans exercise little fiscal responsibility when they have an opportunity to stick it to the poor.
 
One bright spot: If we elect a Democrat to the presidency in 2020, all of these laws will instantly disappear as the states lose their waivers. But lives and precious taxpayer dollars will have been wasted in the meantime.
 
In another brazen example of Republican heartlessness, the Trump administration has similarly called for a work requirement for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients.
 
Of the 688 million nationwide, Michigan has 1.1 million SNAP participants. Initial estimates on the number of Michiganders who will lose food assistance come in at just over 47,000. That number is predicted to bloom to 180,000 if the requirement continues.  
 
SNAP is vital to individuals and families who need a little assistance to carry them through a rough patch. And it’s not a lot of money. The average household sees a benefit of $256 a month. Individuals get about $127 per month, which works out to about $1.41 per meal. A family of three cannot earn more $1,732 to qualify for SNAP. Nationally, about 1 million SNAP beneficiaries are veterans.
 
The changes were announced on Dec. 5, and the implementation will take effect April 1, 2020. The rationale is purportedly to restore the dignity of work among recipients. Once again, we see another new requirement that will cost nearly as much to roll out and administer as the underlying benefit. The USDA estimates that nearly 700,000 people will lose food assistance.
 
Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow, ranking member to the Committee on Agriculture, had choice words on the Trump initiative. “This Administration is out of touch with families who are struggling to make ends meet by working seasonal jobs or part-time jobs with unreliable hours. Seasonal holiday workers in northern Michigan’s tourism industry, and workers with unreliable hours, like waiters and waitresses, are the kinds of workers hurt by this proposal.”
 
She’s right. People forced to work two or three part-time jobs have little say in, nor stability of, their work schedule. A single conflict of scheduling, or an unpaid sick day can be devastating to their continued employment.
 
In 2018, Congress similarly considered adding a SNAP work requirement, a measure couched in the Farm Bill. That measure was rejected in both houses through a broad bipartisan consensus.
 
But now, it appears cruelty has trumped common decency.
 
Amy Kerr Hardin is a retired banker, regionally known artist, and public-policy wonk. You can hear and learn more about the state of Michigan politics on her podcast, www.MichiganPolicast.com.

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