A federal judge on Tuesday halted a major round of cuts in Michigan's welfare program in a move that advocates for the poor say may give thousands of people another month of assistance.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Paul Borman found that the state did a poor job of notifying people they would no longer receive cash benefits and ordered Michigan to send another round of notices.
The stricter four-year cap on cash payments that took effect Oct. 1 was the latest effort to reduce welfare benefits in Michigan. The new law, approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature and GOP Gov. Rich Snyder, is expected to reduce the number of children and adults receiving cash assistance by nearly a fifth, from more than 221,000 to around 180,000.
Borman issued a temporary injunction stopping the law. He said new notices must include information on a recipient's right to ask for a hearing to appeal the loss of benefits and the reason for the change. The original notice wasn't sent to recipients until Sept. 11, less than three weeks before their assistance ended.
Gilda Jacobs of the Michigan League for Human Services, a Lansing-based advocacy group for low-income residents, said 8,000 to 9,000 recipients may get another month of assistance because of the ruling. She originally expected about 41,000 people to lose their cash assistance payments this month, including 29,700 children, according to the Michigan Department of Human Services.
"It does give people more time to prepare for this," she said of the ruling. "If we are looking to get policy change, this is not it. It's just giving people some breathing room."
Jacobs said the strict four-year limit is coming at a bad time for those trying to get a job when the state's unemployment rate is at 11.2 percent.
Borman said termination requires specific notice under law, and "these necessary requirements were not met or even close to met. . . . None of the notices mentions or refers to any statutory authority or policy directives, or even mentions that the terminations are a result of a change in the law."
"The new notice shall also provide the required information regarding the recipient's rights to a hearing, and specifically shall inform the recipient what action they must take in order to maintain their current level of benefits," the judge said.
Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said the administration is "happy" to send another notice to affected recipients "that more closely reflects the concerns noted."
She said the state Department of Human Services "will continue its intense outreach efforts and working hard to make sure families are connected to the resources necessary to achieve independence and to help them access a host of others programs _ from food assistance and Medicaid to child care, temporary rental assistance and job placement initiatives _ they may be eligible for."
Michigan adopted a four-year cash limit that had several exceptions in 2007, under then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat. But the changes approved this year are stricter. Enforcing the four-year limit is expected save the state more than $60 million annually.
The revamped program has some exemptions, including for disabled residents who can't work or for people who care for a disabled spouse or child. Supporters of the new cash cap say it will help rid the system of abuse and identify people who are capable of working.
Associated Press Writer Ed White in Detroit contributed to this report.
Kathy Barks Hoffman can be reached at http://twitter.com/kathybhoffman.