A paper-thin line separates “better late than never” from “too little, too late” and state officials whose poor communication triggered unwarranted food aid cuts for the state’s most vulnerable populations are dancing on a tightrope.
Communications efforts by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services intended to help low-income residents statewide — many of them elderly, disabled or both — restore needed food stamp benefits falls a few leaps short of addressing the whole problem.
State officials last week announced they will disseminate information to food stamp recipients whose benefits were cut by as much as 90 percent during the past two years following changes to the federal Farm Bill introduced in 2014. Those alterations aimed to trim spending from the nationwide program by raising a bar related to a program referred to as “Heat and Eat” wherein recipients receive an increased food stamp allotment if they qualify for a small amount of home heating tax credits.
Federal officials passed responsibility to state agencies to communicate with their clients about the new rules, and DHHS officials in Michigan dropped the ball. Low-income residents statewide lost benefits for which they qualified because nobody told them to complete an extra form.
More than two dozen residents at Riverview Terrace, a public housing complex in Traverse City, were lassoed by the new loophole and, in the worst case, saw monthly benefits drop from $150 to as little as $16. People who barely scrape by in the best circumstances were forced to choose between buying groceries or paying for medicine.
A December report published by the Record-Eagle told the story of a Riverview Terrace resident, Priscilla Townsend, who spent the past few months completing the work DHHS didn’t, helping her neighbors jump through bureaucratic hoops and file the necessary paperwork to restore their benefits.
Meanwhile, DHHS officials stuck to an “it’s not our job” stance until a month later the Record-Eagle found housing officials from several cities statewide who said their residents’ benefits had been slashed during the past 18 months. And the consistent theme from local officials from as far away as Port Huron was a lack of communication from DHHS — the agency tasked with looking out for the state’s most vulnerable residents.
“There is an expectation that caseworkers tell their clients what type of public assistance is available to them,” DHHS spokesman Bob Wheaton told a reporter in December. “But they’re not specifically required to inform clients about the home heating credit.”
Wheaton said DHHS also lacks a mechanism to track how many people felt repercussions from the changes and didn’t know if the issue was widespread.
Well, it was widespread and by late January, nearly two years after the federal Farm Bill passed, officials from DHHS changed their stance and said they would devise a plan to reach out statewide to clients whose benefits were affected by the poor communication.
That plan went into action Tuesday when DHHS sent a press release to about 17,000 email subscribers — not the people directly impacted by the changes. The release explains the cuts and how to restore benefits for those who qualify for home heating tax credits.
But the email falls short in a few key places: It assumes someone else will do the work to place the information into the hands of those affected, and it does nothing to address months — in some cases more than a year — of unpaid benefits.
DHHS and its anemic response is listing dangerously toward the too little, too late side of the line.
— TRAVERSE CITY RECORD-EAGLE