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Cutting Budgets At Expense Of the Needy

As states struggle through thinning budgets, generous welfare programs are often the first to be cut, as is happening in Michigan. WELFARE REFORM

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THE light-gray mattresses go "splat" when they hit the bare floor. It is 9 p.m. The crowd of 60 people begins to pull off the neatly piled mattresses and stake out a place to sleep.

By day this is a senior-citizens center. At night, since Thanksgiving, it has served as a homeless shelter.

"We knew that the homeless in Detroit had increased dramatically," explains Carl Thomas, president of Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, which runs the senior center. "The need was more than the traditional places could handle."

Like many states with generous social-welfare programs, Michigan is slashing its assistance to the needy. The cutbacks and recession have boosted the number of homeless and strained social-service agencies. They have also sparked sharp debate over the direction and scope of welfare reform.

The reason for the cuts is simple. Most state budgets are in the soup. Deficits loom. Welfare programs, which make up a large part of budgets in states such as California, Minnesota, and Michigan, are a tempting target. Welfare benefits slashed

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C., reports that states cut more welfare benefits last year than at any other time in the past decade. Forty states froze or reduced Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the center said. Half of the 30 states offering general assistance to the poor cut back those programs.

Michigan took the most dramatic step of all. It eliminated its general-assistance program last October. Nearly 83,000 childless adults lost monthly payments that often covered their rent. The result: more homeless.

For some, the loss of benefits has been a goad. "I did get complacent in a certain lifestyle," says Wendy Jordan, who lost $228 a month in general-assistance payments last fall. "The cutoffs give us an incentive to better ourselves."

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