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