New: Whitmer, DHHS announce plan to ease access to public assistance

By: - October 17, 2019 9:30 am

Updated, 12:58 p.m. with additional details

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Director Robert Gordon on Thursday morning announced policy changes aimed at making access to food assistance and other public benefits easier for families. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Zeeland | Nick Manes

The state will make the asset limits for food assistance, cash assistance and state emergency relief consistent among all programs. Effective Nov. 1, families can have up to $15,000 in assets and still be eligible for assistance through these programs. 

“These asset test policy changes are important because right now too many Michigan families are struggling to get ahead,” said Whitmer in a press release Thursday. “This is about doing what’s right to help more families get the resources they need and building a stronger Michigan for everyone.”

Currently, many public benefits have ranging asset limits that make it difficult for families to qualify for multiple programs, she said.

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As it stands, asset limits range from $500 for State Emergency Relief such as assistance to prevent utility shutoff or repair furnaces, to $3,000 for the Family Independence Program and other cash assistance programs, to $5,000 for food assistance. The limit for State Emergency Relief had been $50, but was raised after Whitmer became governor and Gordon took over at DHHS.

In 2011, the now-former Gov. Rick Snyder administration enacted an asset limit of $5,000 in bank accounts or property that would make individuals ineligible for food assistance. Other assets that would count against the cap include vehicles with market values of more than $15,000 and second homes. Snyder eventually pulled back on the decision to consider vehicles as assets after applicants were denied the benefits because of cars used to travel to school or job interviews.*

Michigan is among the most restrictive in the nation for people applying for public assistance benefits, but these changes to asset test requirements is expected to make assistance more accessible. Currently 34 states have no asset test for food assistance under the federal Supplemental Assistance Program (SNAP).

Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon | Casey Hull

Gordon said it’s wrong to prevent families from having a rainy-day account in order to receive public assistance.

“People should be encouraged to save – not discouraged from saving – so that they can get out of poverty,” Gordon said in the release. “Michigan is unusual in saying that in addition to having a low income, families also have to establish that they have almost nothing in the bank to receive public assistance. Most states have moved away from stringent asset tests because they are hard to administer, they lead to higher administrative costs as people come on and off programs more frequently, and they discourage low-income families from saving to build a better future.”

Another policy being introduced will change how applicants report their assets to the DHHS. Now applicants will submit a statement of assets rather than requiring an assets verification checklist. Among states that still have asset tests for SNAP, most states allow individuals to self-attest.

Vehicles will no longer be counted in the asset test for food assistance, which is consistent with the requirements for cash assistance programs. A household’s first vehicle will continue to not be counted in the State Emergency Relief asset test.

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“We are pleased by the action being taken by our partners at MDHHS for the benefit of families that are affected by poverty,” said Jill Sutton, board of directors president for Michigan Community Action, the state association for the 28 designated community action agencies in Michigan. “Community action agencies strive to help Michiganders by championing solutions to poverty and promoting economic opportunity. Making asset tests less restrictive is consistent with that mission.”

Whitmer and Gordon announced the new policy Thursday at the Greater Lansing Food Bank, which provides food for needy families and individuals in seven counties.

“Reducing barriers to proper nutrition allows Michigan residents to focus on becoming healthier and more financially stable,” said Michelle Lantz, CEO of Greater Lansing Food Bank. “Without food and other basic needs, our most vulnerable neighbors, including senior citizens, children and low-income working adults, do not have the physical or emotional well-being to improve their lives. This alignment of asset limits with other states simply makes sense.”

Despite making programs more accessible, DHHS continues to prevent and monitor fraud and abuse in all its programs. Whitmer sought a $3.4 million increase in the Office of Inspector General budget that was approved by the Legislature, and the office is increasing its monitoring of asset reports.  

“We remain strongly committed to program integrity,” Gordon said. “Caseworkers will still be free to use their judgment to ask for documents when reports are questionable. Intentionally false reports are crimes subject to prosecution.”

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Over the last several months, the President Trump administration has proposed a number of policy changes to the SNAP program that would limit eligibility for the food assistance benefits. These federal changes could impact more than 144,000 individuals in almost 80,000 households in Michigan.*

“One of those proposals would affect the FAP (Food Assistance Program) change we are making today. That is their effort to basically destroy Broad Based Categorical Eligibility (BBCE),” Gordon said.

Whitmer authored one of about 130,000 comment letters sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that challenged these proposed challenges. 

“It is certain that if [the administration] does come up with that rule, they will face litigation,” Gordon said.

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue is a former Michigan Advance reporter who covered education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.