In 1991 a series of changes and reductions occurred in Michigan’s social services programs, which had the potential for immediate and widespread impact throughout the state. Funding for the Michigan Department of Social Services fell by 15.6 percent from the fiscal year 1991 to 1992 – the largest single year reduction in the department’s history. The General Assistant and Job Start programs were eliminated, and services formerly provided through the Emergency Needs and GA Medical Programs were sharply curtailed.
The project summarized below was undertaken by the Michigan League for Human Services in order to evaluate the impact of these substantial program changes on individuals, needy families, local economies, and community agencies.
Testing the Underlying Assumptions
The project’s key research questions tested the reliability of the assumptions underlying the 1991-1992 social services changes that the local labor market, the private social services system and the extended family – together or separately – would replace the support formerly provided through GA and other programs.
The labor market did not significantly absorb former GA recipients. Seventeen percent of former recipients were employed six months after elimination of General Assistance, with half of these working before the program ended. Eighty-three percent of former GA recipients were unemployed. Based on the survey data, 4,400 former recipients in the study counties found work. Another 4,400 had jobs before their assistance was terminated, and over 46,000 former clients were not employed six months after the program ended.
Local communities and their network of private emergency services providers were not able t meet the increased need for services which follow the elimination of GA and reductions in the emergency needs and indigent health care programs. As the average number of persons served weekly by agencies increased 19 percent in one year, waiting lists also increased, as did limitations on the types of persons eligible for services and the benefits available.
The extended family has not provided the support previously available through GA and other social services programs. The population of former General Assistance recipients is one that is at risk of growing social isolation.
Assessing the Scope of Unmet Needs
One year after the changes and reductions in the state’s basic needs programs occurred, it is clear that substantial unmet need exists in the areas of shelter, food, health care and transportation.
The elimination of GA increased homelessness across Michigan. Based on the survey, and estimated 20,000 recipients in the study counties experienced eviction following termination of the program, with a similar number reporting no regular place to stay. The length of time residing in any one place decreased dramatically for former GA recipients.
Hunger in Michigan increased following termination of GA. Based on the survey, an estimated 27,000 former GA recipients in the study counties went without food for 24 hours or more since the elimination of GA. Private emergency service providers report an escalating demand for food in all areas of the state.
Former GA recipients have significant health problems, with individuals who are older reporting greater problems. The number of community-based emergency services organizations which are providing health-related services increased by 48 percent following the dramatic reduction in GA medical services, but they cannot continue to provide these services at a level commensurate with demand.
Lack of transportation is a significant barrier to accessing employment and training, health care and other basic need services. Only 38 percent of former GA recipients reported having a driver’s license and less than 24 percent had a working car.
The Mandel Study
The Center for Urban Poverty and Social Change as part of the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences conducted a study entitled “General Assistance Program Reduction in Cuyahoga County in 1992.”
“A national study found whether or not a state had a GA program that covered the able-bodied persons was among the most important predictors of homeless rates. In other words, communities that provided continuous benefits to al had much less homelessness per capita then those that had no GA program or restricted it to the medically needy. Thus it seems clear that GA payments, among other things, can prevent individuals from becoming homeless.
The impact of the absence of GA benefits can also be inferred from the anecdotal reports coming from states where persons have lost their GA benefits. Increases are noted in evictions, use of homeless shelters, utility shutoffs, persons who cannot get needed medical care, and financial dependence on family members.
Most GA recipients want to work. Yet, only a little more than half have recent labor market connections, mainly temporary jobs in service and retail sectors. Given the projected demand for labor in the Cleveland area, it would take more than seven years for all of the employable individuals termination from GA in April to find work even if transportation and other barriers to employment were removed.
GA recipients’ risk of homelessness increased by approximately 17 percent following the April terminations. Yet, most individuals without a home stayed temporarily with family or friends rather than on the streets or in shelters. The number of individuals reporting hunger or use of emergency food did not increase.
Almost one-third of GA recipients have applied for another government benefits since program reductions were announced. For help with basic needs, former recipients have overwhelmingly turned to family and friends, and secondly, to community institutions and agencies.
The GA Program in Ohio and many other states has always been a residual program without clear policy objectives. It is meant as a safety net of last resort. The decade of the 1980s produced considerable growth in GA. The growth was greatest in counties such as Cuyahoga that experienced a drastic loss of manufacturing jobs in the state. The program began to serve functions for which it is never intended.
Service Providers Cite Increasing Difficulty
Ohio State University and the Ohio Coalition for the Homeless conducted a survey in 1992 of service providers within the state and came up with these results:
80% found it increasingly difficult to find housing placements, with 59 percent citing GA cuts as the cause.
59% found that homeless adults are referring to the lack of or inadequacy of GA as a cause of their homelessness (directly or indirectly).
Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue 10 May – July 1995