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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Open Minded

April 7, 2017

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Phil Clark is a hard-working young man who put himself through Eastern Michigan University and now manages Ray’s Red Hots, a popular fast-food business in Ann Arbor.

He’s doing fine. College kids love his hot dogs, and Ray’s is expanding, with mobile food carts all over the state.

There’s just one problem. He’s having trouble finding workers for jobs that pay just slightly more than minimum wage. (Whether he realized it or not; he’s not alone. You can find “help wanted” signs in the windows of restaurants in every affluent place in the state.)

But Phil, who is 30 and looking for his first house, thought he knew why: Lazy bums who don’t have to work because they can live the good life on welfare. He wrote to his congressman and shared his letter with me: “There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that this is a DIRECT result of the expansion of the welfare state, in which people who are perfectly able to work are getting paid to do nothing.”

He suggested that anyone who is offered a job and takes it be cut off all welfare benefits immediately and that until then, they be forced to perform community service at minimum wage. Some, he suggested could be required to “pedal exercise bikes to generate electricity.”

But what he didn’t realize is this:

Michigan no longer provides any cash welfare to able-bodied adults. That program, known as “General Assistance,” was ended on Oct. 1, 1991 – more than a quarter-century ago.

Families with children or which include a pregnant woman can get some cash benefits under what’s called the Family Independence Program, but they can stay on that a maximum of 48 months in their lifetimes, no matter how dire the need.

Few are on the rolls these days. That number stood at 64,492 in October, 2015. Another 1.5 million residents do get what used to be called food stamps, now provided with a debit card. But no cash.

When I told Clark that welfare as he imagined it was a myth, he was stunned. “If what you say is true, the implications are staggering. I will say this – you have inspired me to do some homework. I hate to say this, but maybe I was quick to believe a fallacy because it reinforced my own interpretation of my daily reality.”

That reality included job applicants who don’t show up for interviews, or who don’t show up or soon quit. Ray’s pays new workers slightly more than minimum wage, now $8.90 an hour.

Experienced workers make more than $11 an hour. That, however, is a little less than $23,000 a year. And trying to afford housing – or even parking –in a place like Ann Arbor on that kind of money can be close to impossible.

Luke Shaefer, a professor and the director of the Poverty Solutions project at the University of Michigan, said this is a problem he hears about a lot. “With Ann Arbor becoming increasingly expensive, there just aren’t as many folks to fill low-wage jobs because they can’t possibly afford to live here.”

“This is an interesting and complicated issue,” he said. The professor is no snob; he confessed that he and his two small children love Ray’s hot dogs. He grew up a few miles away in Ypsilanti, where incomes are much smaller and there might be more people who would find these attractive positions.

But he said even if poorer people knew about such jobs, they might not be able to get there. Parking is very expensive, especially on football Saturdays, and public transportation is unreliable.

A proposal to build a far better bus system linking the entire metropolitan area was narrowly defeated last November, although Ann Arbor strongly supported it. In the old days, college students might have been the ones working the counter at Ray’s, but these days, Mr. Shaefer said, U of M students tend to be from more affluent families.

There doesn’t seem to be any easy solution. Raising the amount workers make might indeed make for a more stable workforce, but Clark, Ray’s manager, said “payroll is already far and away our biggest expense, and wage hikes are not an economically viable solution.”

Some researchers aren’t too sure about that. Having a stable work force with less turnover would be worth something.

Nor is it clear whether increasing the price of hot dogs would kill business in an affluent town like Ann Arbor.

But what is clear, Poverty Solutions’ Shaefer said, was that older, low-skilled blue collar men represent the biggest workforce challenge; men who may once have made good salaries on an assembly line, and who today do odd jobs, sit in front of the television, or drift into trouble and sometimes, prison.

Few of them have shown any interest in food service jobs.

But when it comes to solutions for his employment problem, Clark said “I pride myself on staying open-minded and challenging my beliefs, and I will do so on this subject as well.”

It would be interesting to see how many problems could be actually solved, if more of us on all sides of every issue did the same.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

April 6, 2017 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry



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