State Poverty Task Force Member Says COVID-19 Showed How Inadequate The Social Safety Net Is

Feb 19, 2021

Forty-three percent of Michigan households struggle to afford necessities like housing, childcare, food, health care and transportation.

That’s according to the United Way’s 2017 “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed,” or ALICE Report.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer created the Michigan Poverty Task Force in 2019 to change those statistics and help low-income Michiganders.


Now, the group has put out a list of recommendations to make those changes.

WKAR’s Sophia Saliby spoke with task force member, Kim Trent. She is also the Deputy Director for Prosperity within the state's Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.

Interview Highlights

On How COVID-19 Impacted The Task Force’s Work

I think COVID-19 just laid bare how woefully inadequate our safety net is. You found our Department of Health and Human Services having to drastically pivot to ensure that we were getting food assistance to the many Michiganders who never required food assistance before, [and] so that they were getting eviction diversion programs set up for people who never had to rely on any kind of state assistance in the past.

On Something Surprising She Found While Researching The Report

I think [it was] the punitive nature of our social services. One example, that I'll give you is that, in the state of Michigan, if you are a low-income person who's getting TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) cash assistance, you know, you have to have appointments with a state worker to talk about what your path is to getting a job and not having to rely on the assistance. If you miss one meeting, you lose your benefits for a certain amount of time. If you miss three times, you are completely banned from ever getting assistance again. Now, you have to think about the life of someone who is a low-income worker. They often don't have work schedules that they can control. They struggle with childcare [and] transportation issues. There is a plethora of reasons that someone might miss an appointment and taking benefits away from them is really not the way to go. 

On How The Programs In The Report Will Be Paid For

We have a separate section of the report with those issues that will require a significant financial investment because we are, if nothing else, realists. There are ideas such as expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, we think it's an idea that we should do. But we also recognize right now, it's probably not the time we're going to invest more than $100 million in something like that. So, we put those in just to say, these are conversations that we need to have. However, a lot of the recommendations we have on our list, really just require either administrative changes, or they are kind of low-cost fixes or even sometimes one time.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: This is All Things Considered on WKAR. I'm Sophia Saliby.

Forty-three percent of Michigan households struggle to afford necessities like housing, childcare, food, and health care.

That’s according to the United Way’s 2017 “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed,” or ALICE Report.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer created the Michigan Poverty Task Force in 2019 to change those statistics and help low-income Michiganders.

Now, the group has put out a list of recommendations to make those changes.

Kim Trent is a part of the task force. She is also the Deputy Director for Prosperity within the state's Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. She joins me now. Thank you for being here.

Kim Trent: Thank you so much for having me. I'm really happy to talk to you about this.

Saliby: Obviously, no one thing could fix all the issues of poverty in the state, but are there any major themes of things that need to be changed to help Michiganders move out of poverty?

Trent: The way we kind of organized our thoughts is that we have the short-term goals which are to help people who are living in poverty, live in poverty with dignity. To be able to ensure that they had the basic needs of life. And then the next step, and to me, maybe as important if not more important, is that we have the long-term strategy, which is ensuring that we have fewer poor people in our state.

So, how we move people who are low-income workers who are having to string together a subsistence in some cases, with three jobs [or] two jobs, giving them the training that they need, so they can get those higher paid jobs because that helps our entire economy.

Saliby: This task force was created at the end of 2019. How did the COVID-19 pandemic impact the work you did to make these recommendations?

Trent: Well, I think COVID-19 just laid bare how woefully inadequate our safety net is. You found our Department of Health and Human Services having to drastically pivot to ensure that we were getting food assistance to the many Michiganders who never required food assistance before, [and] so that they were getting eviction diversion programs set up for people who never had to rely on any kind of state assistance in the past.

I think that the fact that those programs were not already in place in a significant way, because there has been this diminution of our safety net for 20 plus years. And in the meantime, our per capita income has decreased. So, I think that COVID-19, again, just made it more obvious for those who maybe weren't as sensitive to how their neighbors were struggling before COVID-19.

Saliby: Was there anything surprising that the task force found during your research?

Trent: I think [it was] the punitive nature of our social services. One example that I'll give you is that, in the state of Michigan, if you are a low-income person who's getting TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) cash assistance, you know, you have to have appointments with a state worker to talk about what your path is to getting a job and not having to rely on the assistance. If you miss one meeting, you lose your benefits for a certain amount of time. If you miss three times, you are completely banned from ever getting assistance again.

Now, you have to think about the life of someone who is a low-income worker. They often don't have work schedules that they can control. They struggle with childcare and transportation issues. There are a plethora of reasons that someone might miss an appointment and taking benefits away from them is really not the way to go. We really want to approach this with a holistic point of view, so that we are really looking at what are the barriers.

You can't tell someone who's a clerk at Meijer or whatever store who's a single mother, "Oh, you should just go back to school," and not really give her those wraparound services that will make it possible for her to go.

Saliby: The report says many of the initiatives proposed will require significant financial investments. Has the taskforce detailed how the state will pay for these programs?

Trent: So, if you look at the way that the report is organized, we have a separate section of the report with those issues that will require a significant financial investment because we are, if nothing else, realists. There are ideas such as expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, we think it's an idea that we should do. But we also recognize right now, it's probably not the time we're going to invest more than $100 million in something like that.

So, we put those in just to say, these are conversations that we need to have. However, a lot of the recommendations we have on our list, really just require either administrative changes, or they are kind of low-cost fixes or even sometimes one time.

Saliby: What role, if any, does the state legislature need to play in meeting these goals and projects?

Trent: So, what we're doing with the legislature is starting with those issues that we know there's already some degree of consensus, and we're just going to to move on from there. They are our partners in this work, so it's not our goal to just work around the legislature on all of this.

We recognize that right now is a pretty tense time in state politics; however, for the good of the low-income citizens that they serve as well as the governor, we're hoping that we can get to a point where we can, you know, get consensus on some of these really important issues.

Saliby: And now that these recommendations are out, is the taskforce done? What are the next steps now that the governor has this report?

Trent: The next steps are, you know, again, working with our external stakeholders, working with, you know, again, legislators. Working with the 14 state department directors who helped put together these recommendations to really move the ball forward.

We are putting together our strategy, you know, we have a kind of short-term, medium-term and long-term strategy, and I'm just really excited to get started with it.

Saliby: Kim Trent is a part of the state's Poverty Task Force. Thank you for joining me.

Trent: Thank you, Sophia.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.