State seeks to dispel stigma that may prevent people in need from seeking short-term assistance

In these challenging economic times, public assistance is vital — not only to provide basic necessities of daily life, but also to help families get back on their feet.

This newspaper has long held that the vast majority of welfare recipients would rather have decent jobs. During better times, unemployed people line up for blocks when factories or new businesses are taking applications for good-paying positions.

Accordingly, we support the current effort in Michigan to dispel myths about public assistance. As bad as it is now, it would be much worse — chaotic at the least — throughout our state and nation if the growing number of people who need help were ignored.

The state has begun a program entitled “Welfare 101: Busting myths about welfare.”

“Those myths have caused a stigma that may prevent some people who truly need help, especially families with young children and the elderly, to come forward,” said Ismael Ahmed, director of the state Department of Human Services. “We want to put an end to that because the safety net helps families get back on their feet.

“There is an unprecedented need for these programs. Today, people seeking assistance could be your neighbor, a friend or a family member. A lot of people don’t realize how close they are to needing help.”

Keeping people afloat until the current recession turns around and employment opportunities increase is vital for the long term.

Moreover, the demand continues to increase. Between 2005 and 2009, 2.5 million Michigan residents (one in four) received some kind of government service. In our community, calls for assistance have increased across all income levels.

“When a family is in crisis, the necessities — food, clothing, shelter — must be met before they can work on the problems facing them,” remarked Rosemary Gardiner, chief executive officer of Family & Children Services, a Kalamazoo agency that contracts with the state.

Receiving public assistance is not a lifestyle, Ahmed said.

The average people receiving assistance are working but not making enough money to support their families, have lost good-paying jobs or experienced medical emergencies that gobbled up their savings, he said.

“These people are receiving help for a short period, getting back on their feet and moving on,” Ahmed said. “It’s a transition for them. Most people on assistance receive help for between six months and two years.”

There are abuses in the system. Welfare fraud continues to be a problem, but that doesn’t mean the entire operation is corrupt.

“Dependency isn’t good for anyone,” Gardiner said. “A person wants to be the master of their own ship. But the props must be in place for them to move forward.”

“Welfare is a springboard to more education, stable housing or a better job,” she said. “It comes down to what kind of community you want to live in.

“When the quality of life of people in need increases, it’s better for everyone.”

We concur.