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Operation: Fresh Start

In 1998, Michigan Welfare Rights convened a meeting to address the thousands of Wayne County residents who were surviving the cut off of either gas, lights, or water. We called such a meeting because it was clear that the Work First project initiated by the Family Independence Agency [formerly Dept. of Social Services] was at the root of why so many welfare recipients were in trouble with their utilities and someone needed to raise the flags of outrage.

What has happened is that Work First demands that recipients secure employment from any other source as a condition of continuing to receive benefits. The client finds work and after thirty days, loses the vendor protection from utility shut-off provided through the FIA. The utility company issues an in-total bill covering the entire amount the client owes over the protected vendor amount that may have accumulated for years. These bills are hundreds and even thousands of dollars and the utility company asks for payment within thirty days. Impossible!!!  The terrorized client appeals to FIA for assistance in paying this outrageous amount, but the Dept has rules. If the bill is high, the answer is no. The bills are high, so these recipients are told that they are not entitled to receive any assistance. Next, the utility company interrupts service. Now this recipient and her family try to live in a place without heat, or without electricity, or without water, and still continue at her minimum wage job. Two months pass, and of course she is struggling against all odds to make this unworkable situation work. In the third month, she loses the job, and now because of FIA rules, she is not categorically entitled to immediately begin receiving benefits. The situation further deteriorates as she is asked to continue to look for yet another minimum wage job without utilities as they are off because she can't pay the bill, and the welfare office which started this catastrophe will not assist.

Welfare Rights called the parties to the table to discuss Operation: Fresh Start, a concept that asks if the FIA is mandating recipients to enter the work market, they must be prepared to either eat the accrued bills alone or share the "meal" with the appropriate  utility company. If the client presents a $1,200 electric bill that was not paid in full by FIA for the six years the client received straight assistance, then they should forgive all of the bill and pay the company directly, or ask the utility company to pay for half so that the client has a FRESH START!

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