Michigan: Let’s Make Benefit Recipients Volunteer for Nonprofits

Print Share on LinkedIn More


September 18, 2013; Lansing State Journal


Doesn’t the concept of “mandatory community service” make you think of people, convicted of crimes, forced to do some community tasks in place of going to jail? For example, avoiding jail time, Chris Brown is supposedly doing 1,000 hours of mandatory community service due to his physical assault on Rihanna. Lindsay Lohan was ordered to work at a county morgue as an alternative to jail time for one of her parole violations. Neither Brown nor Lohan were particularly assiduous in completing their court-ordered assignments, but the point was to punish them; they weren’t doing community tasks for service-learning credits at high school.

Both Brown and Lohan violated the law and were being punished, but Michigan state legislators have decided to apply the same punitive thinking to recipients of state welfare assistance. This past week, the Michigan Senate passed legislation to require community service for people receiving government assistance such as food stamps and other welfare benefits. The Michigan House Commerce Committee also chose to deny unemployment benefits to people who refuse to take drug tests or who test positive for a drug test.

It’s not these were contentious, unpopular measures. Drug testing passed the House Committee by a 12 to 4 vote. The Senate passed the mandatory community service bill with 27 in favor, 9 against. Republican state senator Joe Hune explained that these laws would simply “require folks to have a little skin in the game…to get their benefits.” Democratic state representative Jon Switalski tried to expand the applicability of the drug testing requirement to state legislators, but his peers rejected the idea of having quite that much skin in the game for the benefits they get.

Do you think the legislators had punitive motivations? Democratic State Senator Vincent Gregory offered an amendment to require the state to pick up child care costs for a single mother while performing mandatory community service. The amendment failed.

If the drug-testing requirement becomes law, Michigan would be joining eight other states with legislation on the books for drug testing public assistance recipients. These states basically test people for drug use not based on evidence or reasonable suspicion, but simply because they receive public assistance. It is hard to imagine a clearer instance of civil rights discrimination against poor people than this policy. An editorial in the Albion Pleiad reviewed the bills and concluded, “by advancing these bills, Michigan’s lawmakers are continuing to pick on the poor.”

Do you find anything wrong with Michigan’s new policy directions? The National Council on Nonprofits does: “The National Council of Nonprofits supports programs that promote volunteering activities that mutually benefit individuals and the people served through nonprofits. However, the Council of Nonprofits’ Public Policy Agenda expressly opposes proposals to condition receipt of government-provided benefits on requirements that individuals volunteer at nonprofit organizations. Such a policy, sometimes called ‘mandatory volunteerism,’ unfairly imposes increased costs, burdens, and liabilities on nonprofits by an influx of coerced individuals.” While the Council’s arguments emphasize “unfunded mandates on charitable nonprofits to accommodate the hundreds of thousand suddenly showing up on their doorsteps seeking unscheduled and unsolicited service opportunities” and the prospect of “name-brand nonprofits and foundations in particular…overwhelmed by sheer volumes of people if such a bill were passed,” perhaps as a means of giving it a logical nonprofit hook for taking a position against the Michigan legislation, fortunately it is on the right side of the issue.

Let’s see this punitive, stigmatizing set of bills in the Michigan legislature get slowed down on their trajectories to the Governor’s desk.—Rick Cohen

  • Tasasha

    Both the mandatory drug testing and community service laws in order to receive public assistance are inhumane, racist, and classist. Treating poverty as a crime, and forcing poor people to “earn” the right to have their basic needs met is cruel. I know that that cities and states are going through budget troubles, and they’re trying to spend the least amount of money as possible on people they don’t feel are important, but poor people should not have to shoulder the burden of budget crises. Raise taxes on the wealthy, take the money spent on incarcerating people and spend it on providing social services.

    I hope the nonprofit community (especially human services organizations) in Michigan stand up for the people they serve and tell the Michigan legislature loud and clear that they do not support these bills.

  • Deb

    Pros and cons to both sides, maybe an alternative would be to give a higher rate of public assistance to those who are willing volunteer their services? Just a thought. I agree volunteering should not be totally mandated, but we already mandate that to be on certain public assistance they must be actively seeking work. While they are not working then volunteering is a great way to gain more and different experiences to increase their skills and potentials for the job market. Or have non profits provide a variety of intern type positions that public assistance will pay a higher rate for so experience can be gained while seeking a job, again this would not be mandatory that a person on public assistance does this. I think some form of this would be great to keep people actively involved in the job market and the community instead of sitting at home waiting for the next assistance check while watching tv and occasionally heading out to look for a job. This type of actively only increases potential for lack of self esteem and worth, potential worse–depression.

  • Richard Freedlund

    While I stand firmly against mandatory drug testing of those receiving state benefits, as it is a costly expense that is unnecessary and an invasion of privacy without cause, I don’t have a problem with having those who are physically able to contribute to their communities while receiving aid. It helps those participants feel productive by doing something to make their communities better. Whether they are folding letters and stuffing envelopes, cleaning up municipal parks, helping repair homes of the elderly, or any other activities that nonprofits do, those performing tasks will feel productive and gain self worth by knowing that they are contributing.

    During the Great Depression, the government used the CCC to make public lands better clearing brush, building roads, and other activities that benefited the greater good. For their efforts, they were sheltered, fed, and received a modest income. Was that a racist program? Was that punishment for those who were affected by the hard financial times? Those that participated were grateful for the opportunity to contribute and get something for their effort.

    In my former home of Oregon, a nonprofit group called the Tualatin Valley Gleaners expects service from those it serves. Beneficiaries are expected spend some time each month working in gardens and preparing food boxes for pick up, and the benefit recipients are happy to do their part.

    Doesn’t the Nonprofit Quarterly expect something in return for your salary and benefits, Mr. Cohen? Why shouldn’t states and municipalities get a modest return for the money spent on those receiving benefits, if the participants are able?

  • Michael J. Rosen, CFRE

    I grew up poor. While we weren’t welfare-poor, we were food-stamp-poor. When I went to college, I qualified for a variety of financial aid resources including a program where the university gave me money for school in exchange for my labor. It was called the “Work-Study Program,” and I was grateful to benefit from it. One of my work study jobs was as the assistant to the editor of the Journal of the History of Ideas. As a journalism student, my experience at the journal was enormously helpful training in addition to a source of much needed money. Another work study job also gave me great career experience because it was with the communications department of a large nonprofit organization; that experience also helped me network and led directly to employment as a newspaper reporter.

    For many of Michigan’s poor who will be required to “volunteer” in order to receive certain state benefits, I don’t see a problem. Based on my own experience, I even see significant potential benefit as the recipients of state assistance learn valuable job skills, get workplace experience, gain networking opportunities, and feel a sense of satisfaction instead of shame.

    The one problem with the Michigan program that I do see is that it could add a costly burden to single-parent households. The Michigan law should provide a childcare allowance or exemption for such households. In addition, Michigan lawmakers should develop and fund a program to encourage individuals to not have children until they can afford to take care of them. Yes, I realize that there are folks who need public assistance because their economic situation has unexpectedly changed; that’s what happened to my family. However, there are also many folks receiving public assistance who have additional children and then expect the rest of us to care for their children. We need to reduce the number of babies born into poverty.

    Now, before anyone starts accusing me of being a racist, let me just point out that, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, in 2009 the TANF (welfare) rolls were 33.3 percent black, 31.2 percent white, and 28.8 percent Hispanic. In other words, there are plenty of white folks on welfare.

    As far as the impact on charities goes, I’m not sure I see the problem. I don’t believe the Michigan law requires charities to “hire” volunteers. And I don’t believe the Michigan law bars charities from “terminating” bad volunteers. The only downside I can see is that charities will have a much larger pool of prospective volunteers from which to draw; what’s the problem? The nonprofits that I worked for in my work-study program were happy to have me and did a good job training me; it was a win-win.

    Finally, regarding drug testing, I’m opposed as that is a violation of privacy.

  • 30 Year NonProfit ED

    Obviously these legislators are consumed with the thought that “anyone can do nonprofit work”, after all we’re JUST a nonprofit, right? I’d propose that, as a test pilot of their intended action, they take these coerced volunteers into their own offices and companies. They can slow or stop their work to orient them and provide them with training in the skills necessary to be productive, to be an asset to the company. They can hire the extra staff needed to do the paperwork, their company can pay for the background checks. After all, we’re just lowly nonprofits, so we need a big, professional, grown-up corporation to show us how this all can work. Seriously, this is another great example of elitist “representatives” who are ill-informed of their state and community and to “up their party’s ass” to enact their elected role of “representative of the people” of their state or district. They obviously have no understanding or appreciation for nonprofits and the BILLIONS of dollars we pump into state and national economies every year through payroll, taxes, service delivery, etc. And they obviously have no understanding of or respect for those living in poverty. If you truly want to change the situation and reduce your “welfare roles”, then you should be pumping a lot more money into your sound, professionally managed nonprofits. We’re in a much better position to change the world than any legislator sheltered in a big house and fancy office, living out of touch with the real world. If they truly want to change the world, they need to ASK the nonprofits what they need.

  • Julie

    The Michigan Legislature is beyond contempt. Ditto for the governor.

  • Sharon Charters

    Wow, I am amazed at the level of “blame the victim” mentality evident in some of these responses. People don’t need volunteer work – they need jobs which pay a living wage. The situation for low income families, particularly in states such as Michigan, is not a result of individual failure but rather an economic recession resulting in large part due to globalization.

  • Michael J. Rosen, CFRE

    Sharon, I think you need to re-read my comment. As a former poor person myself, I find it offensive that you would characterize the poor as “victims.” During my family’s tough times when I was a kid, we never considered ourselves “victims.” We weren’t willing to give the power to someone else. Instead, we owned our situation. While grateful for the government safety net, we all worked to climb out of our predicament taking the minimum government aid necessary rather than the maximum we might have been qualified for. As I’ve already stated, part of that government aid came in the form of a Work Study Program while I was in college. Before that, when I was 15, I qualified for a government assistance program called Manpower that provided part-time employment to poor youth. The Manpower experience was my first job. I was a summer custodian at an elementary school. The job taught me how to swing a wet mop, a skill I still use today. The job also helped create my work ethic. I also learned that I never wanted to be a custodian and, therefore, I worked hard to qualify for a better job. My Work Study also taught me professional skills that benefited me later in my career. In addition, one of my Work Study jobs allowed me to network and actually led to a regular job.

    There is no shame in working. While people need good paying jobs, there’s no reason they shouldn’t work to “earn” their government assistance if they are able to do so. Working for government money builds self-esteem. It encourages people to think of themselves as productive members of society rather than as charity cases or, as you have suggested, victims.

    Working for government assistance also can help develop skills that will serve the individual well. In addition, working for government assistance can help people network, just as it did for me.

    So, please stop your holier-than-thou nonsense. Stop turning those in poverty into victims. Let’s give folks a hand-up instead of a handout.

    I’ve been there. Have you?

  • E craig Jackson

    The comments can be observed in more than one way, a hand up will no longer have to be something that non -profits an government’ will be required to do .With proper training you can be a business owner. Where I am going with this? More, can, an will be addressed in the up an coming months ahead.
    in the mean time livefree215.net

  • ramona

    Give me a break. I have to work for my benefits (i.e. a paycheck) so why shouldn’t recipients of “free” benefits have to do some work for them? Besides, many volunteer opportunities create skills that can be used in the job market. I personally know several people receiving benefits, that simply do not want to work. I am not wealthy, but I do not feel taxing the wealthy so these unmotivated individuals can survive is fair. Everyone has a duty to serve in some way, even if that means volunteering. I work full time and still volunteer 15 – 20 hours a week. Don’t tell me that it would be demeaning to ask someone without a job to volunteer for 15 – 20 hours a week. You are right about it being inhumane – it is to me, a hardworking, tax paying citizen!!