LANSING — Michigan will make it easier for low-income residents to qualify for public assistance by relaxing some of the country's most restrictive asset tests for people who apply for benefits.
Starting Nov. 1, the asset limit for food assistance, welfare and emergency relief will be $15,000 – up from $5,000 for food stamps, $3,000 for cash assistance and $500 for emergency payments. Assets that are counted typically include savings and, in some cases, cars, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state officials announced last week.
As part of the changes, the state Department of Health and Human Services will no longer count vehicles toward the asset threshold for food assistance, nor will it require applicants to show bank account statements and other documents proving their assets. Instead, recipients will be able to self-attest.
"These asset test policy changes are important because right now too many Michigan families are struggling to get ahead," said Whitmer, a Democrat who helped make the announcement at the Great Lansing Food Bank. "A family struggling to keep their head above water shouldn't have to be completely destitute to get a little help."
Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon said Michigan is unusual in telling applicants that they must have little income and "almost nothing in the bank" to receive public assistance. Thirty-four states have no asset limit to get food assistance, he said.
The changes, Gordon said, will bring Michigan's asset tests into the "mainstream of states."
The Whitmer administration's decision drew some criticism in the Republican-led Legislature. Amber McCann, the spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey of Clarklake, said he "is extremely concerned that self-reporting of assets will result in greater fraud and divert resources from vulnerable people who truly need assistance."
The administration of then-Republican Gov. Rick Snyder put in place the asset rules for food assistance in 2011, after the state saw a surge of applications during the economic downturn. Most states had been moving to get rid of such asset tests.
Vehicles with market values of more than $15,000 were counted against the $5,000 cap initially, though officials quickly allowed one car to be exempt after facing backlash. Considering a car an asset has been particularly controversial because some contend it helps people look for and keep a job.
The $3,000 asset limit for welfare has been in place since at least 1997, said state spokesman Bob Wheaton.
Gordon had no projections on how many more people will be eligible for assistance under the new policies.
Roughly 1.1 million residents qualified for food assistance in August. The average payment was $118 per person, or $223 a case. About 35,000 people across 15,000 cases got cash assistance averaging $828 per case.
"Michigan's asset test has significantly undercut the actual 'assistance' in the state's cash, food and heating assistance programs, making it harder for residents and families to utilize benefits and outright punishing families for sound financial management and savings-building," said Gilda Jacobs, president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy, which advocates for the poor.
She credited Whitmer's administration for "making great strides in fixing this counterintuitive policy."