The safety net in Michigan

Poverty in the United States has increased measurably in the past ten years, and this is particularly visible in the state of Michigan. (Here is a webpage provided by the Michigan Department of Human Services with some basic information on poverty in the state.)  State departments of human services and non-profit organizations alike are being stretched by the need for poverty-related services — food assistance, childcare, heating assistance, job training, and the like. So how good a job are we doing to ensure that poor people in the United States have reasonable access to the necessities of life?

In general, the answer to the question seems mostly to be — not a very good job. The amount of money available for services to the poor is under pressure in most state legislatures. The processes through which low-income people need to pass in order to apply for assistance are confusing and needlessly lengthy. And the “front doors” for providers are highly decentralized, so the potential recipient of assistance needs to conduct a lengthy search simply to find a possible source.

The United Way of Southeast Michigan is a highly capable social service agency that is genuinely committed to helping to improve the situation of Michigan’s poorest residents (link). Here is a UWSEM report on the status of basic needs of the population in Michigan.  The report is worth reviewing in detail.  One point stands out very starkly — a strikingly high percentage of the state’s population falls in the status of poor or near-poor.  The report provides a very legible description of the composition of the 40% of Michigan’s population who are “at-risk”:

This is a truly sobering statistic: two out of five residents of Michigan fall within the groups of the persistent poor, working poor, newly poor, and potentially poor.

One of the United Way’s current priorities is to do a careful review of the system of assistance as a whole in the state. Generally, their finding is that resources, agencies, and strategies are highly fragmented in the state, so it is easy to guess that the provision of services is somewhat sporadic and inefficient. More importantly, their analysis shows that over a billion dollars of federal assistance to individuals are left unused year after year — at a time when the need for assistance is greater than it has ever been.  (This report should appear on the UWSEM website sometime soon.)

It’s worth looking closely at the data compiled by UWSEM. Over $34 billion are expended on assistance to the poor in Michigan, with over 55% of the funds coming from Federal sources ($19.9 billion). The state’s own resources represent roughly half that amount ($9.4 billion).  Foundations and private resources make up the rest.  Second, these $34 billion are expended through a large number of state agencies — treasury, school aid, public housing, the department of human services, etc.  And finally, the funds flowing from these multiple agencies then re-aggregate at the level of the users in a variety of basic categories of need: workforce development, housing, family preservation, food, cash assistance, and healthcare.

There are several key conclusions that emerge from the UWSEM analysis. One is that this is a process that is plainly designed for providers and auditors, not users. The idea that the system of social services should be streamlined in such a way as to allow maximum access for eligible residents is clearly not the guiding design principle.

A second point is that the system is needlessly complex for the user. It should be possible to streamline services and application processes in such a way as to increase the impact of available resources for eligible people.

A third point is that it should be possible to use the Internet to significantly increase the accessibility and transparency of the system. It should be possible for the poor person to enter a single “portal”; enter his/her information into a database; and find out on one screen what programs and benefits for which he/she is eligible.

In short, it would appear that there are significant opportunities for public “safety net” providers in Michigan to increase the efficiency and reach of their services with some intelligent redesign of the delivery systems.  And we certainly need to make sure that the billion dollars of unexpended federal benefits find their way to eligible citizens.

(Here is a nice example of how universities and communities can work together to address the issues of poverty that their region faces (link).  This collaboration between Western Michigan University and various organizations in Kalamazoo, Michigan is aimed at providing easy access to data about poverty and well-being in Kalamazoo that can help guide programs and resources towards effective reduction of poverty.)

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