Michigan Welfare Rights Organization
"You get what you are organized to take!"
Recent History of Utility Shut-offs for Detroit's Poor, Disabled, and Seniors
From 1995-96, Wayne County had 198,000 residents receiving cash assistance from what was then called the Dept. of Social Services (DSS). In 1996, President Clinton signed the Welfare Reform Bill and began a countdown of five years as the time for assistance from welfare. A component part of the Bill was "WORK FIRST." It mandated that recipients leave cash assistance and find work. Utility bills that these unemployed workers had over the years while they needed assistance were paid in part under a program called Vendor Pay. A $50 per month gas bill would garner a $20 payment from the Family Independence Agency (FIA, formerly the DSS), and that account was protected from shut-off if they enrolled in the Vendor Pay program. The $30 balance was listed but never addressed and never showed up as an arrearage on the recipient's bill. Month after month, these balances accumulated but these recipients had winter protection.
The parent secures a job and after two months is ineligible for cash assistance from FIA. In the third month on the job, Michcon [gas company] and Detroit Edison [electric company] sends out a congratulatory letter praising that mother for getting a job and becoming independent from welfare, and ask her to send in that total balance of the utility bill. The arrearage bill she sees is $1500 and, of course, she can't pay it.
In 2002, Wayne County had less than 30,000 cash assistance recipients remaining. On October 31 of that same year, the utility companies discontinued the entire Vendor Pay program and exposed all 30,000 to immediate light and gas interruptions. This is when our telephones at MWRO began to ring off the hook. We called hearings to better understand what the nature and depth of the problem was, but even we were not prepared to learn or hear the truth. To thwart suspicions about what poor people say, we contacted DTE Energy [after merger of Michcon and Detroit Edison] to ask exactly how many homes in DETROIT only were without lights and gas. We were told that 9,800 homes were already disconnected as of August 2002, and that number had grown since the discontinuance of Vendor Pay. We were also told that 20,000 homes were in shut-off status meaning that they were scheduled for shut-off within days. What else could we do but to picket DTE and expose this scandalous threat against life and community. All of Detroit stands in danger with every family trying to use a space heater. Every block is in peril while propane tanks have the potential to explode. Every community is in jeopardy while parents try to re-connect gas and electricity in an effort to keep their families alive.
By accident, friends of Welfare Rights were able to reach the Detroit Water and Sewage Dept. to secure figures that tell the rest of the story. According to them: (a) between June 2002 and June 2002, water was turned off in 40,752 residences; and (b) Between October 16, 2002 and January 3, 2003, an additional 4, 532 residences had water turned off. All shut-offs, according to the Water Dept, were because of failure to pay.
This is the end of the story. Some 75,000 households of unemployed persons in-between jobs, some on welfare, some temporary workers, some seasonal workers, ALL Detroiters, are living in unspeakable conditions so stressful and inhumane that we are contacting the United Nations and have begun to formulate formal requests for foreign aid.
It is a Human Rights Violation to make people live without utilities simply because they are poor. Minor children can be and have been removed from homes that do not have water. If the FIA really wanted Work First to work, they would have enlisted the support and the "buy in" status of the utility companies as well.
The "State of the Poor" Organizing Drive
In 1996, when the Welfare Reform Bill was signed, there were 266,000 active cash assistance recipients in Michigan. Today, the projected number according to the Michigan League For Human Services for fiscal year 2002 will be approximately 75,000 recipients still receiving some form of cash assistance. Where are the 175,000 gone off to? The incidence of poverty is on the rise indicated by the increased numbers of persons going to homeless shelters, soup kitchens, day help sites, blood banks and other venues where poor people congregate. Welfare Reform is a complete and utter "bust" -- a national commotion created to shift the attention of the country away from failing corporate ventures who require a bailout financed by the most vulnerable and unorganized sector of the economy.
There are two actions that Michigan Welfare Rights has organized as a response. First, in collaboration with several other entities, we mounted a people's movement to bring pressure on our elected officials so that they will support the re-authorization of TANF, (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families). TANF is woefully inadequate, but without it, our constituents will fall even further, so the line must be drawn at that place. Welfare Rights organized a Poor People's March and Tribunal in Detroit to coincide with the anniversary of the NWRU on June 28 and 29, 2002, featuring two days of attention being focused on both the plight and the fight of the disenfranchised.