Source: Sherman Publications

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Welfare overhaul may strain OCEF food pantry

by Susan Bromley

September 14, 2011

The Ortonville Community Emergency Fund has had ever increasing numbers of people for several years requesting their assistance to put food on their tables and pay the bills.

Changes to welfare approved by state legislators last month and signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder will take effect Oct. 1 and the local food pantry expects even more people who live in the Brandon School District will need help.

The welfare reform, expected to save the state $60 million in the fiscal year, institutes a 4-year limit on welfare, and stricter following of the 5-year federal limit. It is anticipated that statewide, 11,000 current recipients will lose their benefits in two weeks.

"It's pretty scary stuff," said OCEF President Karyn Milligan-Thompson. "I think when you do something this drastic, it needs to be phased out, not just an all or nothing thing. It needs to be gradually implemented. I believe there will be an increase in services from OCEF that are needed— food assistance, but also housing, and electric bills, water bills, lot rent. That's what these people rely on. We are strained."

The OCEF food pantry is currently serving about 130 needy families who reside in the Brandon School District. That number represents clients who are visiting the food pantry monthly. OCEF Board Member Roger Duval notes it costs the non-profit organization about $6,000 per month to provide food to those families. The monthly visits by clients does not provide food for the month, it is meant as a supplement to help get the families through. OCEF has a mission of not turning anyone in need away.

"We do expect this reform to affect us," Duval said. "More people coming to us for assistance would affect our funding. I believe we have maxed out the donations in our community. The problem in Ortonville is we aren't like a food bank in Oxford... Our commercial district on M-15 is pretty much it. We don't have a manufacturing base, we get money from local churches and they get money from local citizens. It is going to impact us and we will just have to deal with it."

State Senator Dave Robertson, whose district includes Brandon and Groveland townships, supported the welfare reform.

"We want to help people in need, but this can't be a lifestyle and go on in perpetuity," he said. "It's not like we're saying Oct. 1, goodbye and good luck, we're giving a lot of individual attention to these people. I think more non-profits will be involved and the generosity of Michigan citizens through faith-based organization is enormous and noble and a preferable way to provide assistance. They are your neighbors and friends and if they can provide assistance, great. I certainly contribute to those organizations and encourage all people to do the same."

Recipients who no longer qualify for cash benefits may still qualify for food and energy assistance, child care, Medicaid and temporary rental assistance, according to a DHS statement. The DHS has also extended participation in the Jobs, Education and Training Program.

Duval wonders where the jobs will come from.

"People are working part-time jobs, sometimes two part-time jobs that teenagers used to work... Some of the people working these minimum wage jobs aren't kids. Things are tough."

Robertson said despite it being "the most challenging of times" he supported the welfare reform to get the economy "moving in the right direction."

"We have to lighten the tax burden and we are looking for the population to become self-sufficient," he said. "Ideally, we want people working and we're trying to create a better environment for jobs to be created. Welfare reform lessens the tax burden on residents and business owners and creates an environment for jobs."

Meanwhile, Duval and Milligan-Thompson are bracing for a potential increase in requests for help while donations remain the same.

"It's not that people aren't giving— they are giving," said Duval, who is thankful for the generosity of the community. "But they are giving already as much as they can... Things are tough, I don't know what the impact will be. Working with OCEF is one of the biggest challenges I've ever had, but one of the most endearing jobs I've had. We can only expect more clients and if we don't keep our funding going, we have to cut back on what we give. We don't turn customers away. "