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Cutting Budgets At Expense Of the Needy

As states struggle through thinning budgets, generous welfare programs are often the first to be cut, as is happening in Michigan. WELFARE REFORM

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 24, 1992


THE light-gray mattresses go "splat" when they hit the bare floor. It is 9 p.m. The crowd of 60 people begins to pull off the neatly piled mattresses and stake out a place to sleep.

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By day this is a senior-citizens center. At night, since Thanksgiving, it has served as a homeless shelter.

"We knew that the homeless in Detroit had increased dramatically," explains Carl Thomas, president of Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, which runs the senior center. "The need was more than the traditional places could handle."

Like many states with generous social-welfare programs, Michigan is slashing its assistance to the needy. The cutbacks and recession have boosted the number of homeless and strained social-service agencies. They have also sparked sharp debate over the direction and scope of welfare reform.

The reason for the cuts is simple. Most state budgets are in the soup. Deficits loom. Welfare programs, which make up a large part of budgets in states such as California, Minnesota, and Michigan, are a tempting target. Welfare benefits slashed

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C., reports that states cut more welfare benefits last year than at any other time in the past decade. Forty states froze or reduced Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the center said. Half of the 30 states offering general assistance to the poor cut back those programs.

Michigan took the most dramatic step of all. It eliminated its general-assistance program last October. Nearly 83,000 childless adults lost monthly payments that often covered their rent. The result: more homeless.

For some, the loss of benefits has been a goad. "I did get complacent in a certain lifestyle," says Wendy Jordan, who lost $228 a month in general-assistance payments last fall. "The cutoffs give us an incentive to better ourselves."

The loss of general assistance forced Ms. Jordan to give up her $250-a-month apartment. She decided to check into a drug treatment program. Now drug-free and a resident of a Detroit women's program called Heartline, she is looking for a job.

For other Michiganders, the cuts just made life harder.

Roger Trader of Saginaw used to be a manager at a McDonald's restaurant. He quit that job in the mid 1980s to go back to school and get training for something better. He hasn't worked steadily since then.

When it was available, general assistance was a better deal than working, he says. "You don't get ahead" with a minimum-wage job.

Members of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank in Midland, Mich., agree. In a recent report, they noted that a full-time minimum-wage job pays well under $10,000 and may not offer any health benefits. The total value of welfare assistance in Michigan averages around $14,000.

The cuts extend beyond the poor, however.

There have been reports of elderly women in nursing homes taken off solid food because state Medicaid would no longer pay to replace their dentures.

Mary Selden of suburban Detroit still gets meals-on-wheels, but she's worried the service will be cut off. Van service has been pared back. Drivers no longer will carry heavy bags of groceries into the house.

"I want to give as much as I get," Mrs. Selden says. (She saves the portions of the meals she doesn't eat for an elderly neighbor.) But "I would probably live a lot less well if it weren't for this help."

Some voters were outraged when Gov. John Engler began cutting social programs last year. Jackie Shrader, an out-of-work waitress on state aid, launched a petition to oust Governor Engler. She drove 67,500 miles in her 1982 Ford Escort, following the governor around the state to gather names for her recall petition. The effort failed, but Mrs. Shrader, a mother of three, is launching a second recall drive.