Michigan is moving to make Medicaid recipients work to receive benefits. In a nation led by an Ayn Rand fever dream who lives in a golden tower and wants people to work harder to be eligible for the social programs that keep them alive, Michigan’s actions aren’t shocking. What is shocking is who they won’t be applying to: white people.

When writing a policy that would require Medicaid recipients to prove they worked almost 30 hours a week, the Michigan GOP carved out an exception that seems surprisingly reasonable at first blush; counties with an unemployment rate of 8.5 percent or higher would be exempted from these work requirements.

The decision to make this exemption county-level and not city-level is very important, though. Because blighted and impoverished Michigan cities like the city of Flint — which was both the subject of a Michael Moore documentary and the government-sponsored poisoning of a major metropolitan area — share counties with more affluent suburbs. Since poor people of color are often in urban centers and poor white people are often in rural areas, the factual effect of the exemption is to grant white people protection from rules designed to punish communities of color.

African Americans make up 23 percent of the population covered under Michigan’s Medicaid expansion program Healthy Michigan, but less than 1 percent of the people who will be exempted from the work requirements under Michigan’s proposed legislation.

The Center for Michigan found six municipalities with unemployment of 9 percent — Detroit, Flint, Saginaw, Muskegon, Highland Park, and Mount Morris Township — which would not be eligible for exemption because of the affluence of their surrounding county. Those municipalities are on average 71.8 percent black. Four of the six are represented by the few Democrats in the State Senate.

Meanwhile the 17 exempt counties are all represented by Republicans, and are almost 90 percent white.

To be clear, this means Michigan is enacting a policy where impoverished people of color need to work for little or even no wages in order to have access to the essential services that keep them alive.

That’s slavery.

And Michigan isn’t the only state keeping their poor whites from having to work as hard as their poor people of color. Far from it.

This is the Trump playbook.

Michigan is following the examples of Ohio and Kentucky before it in securing waivers to establish work requirements while carving out exemptions to those requirements for rural, white Republicans. A tactic that could, at its most craven, literally work the lawmakers’ political rivals, especially people of color, to death.

“Our housing patterns in Ohio are influenced by a past history of institutionalized segregation, and the Medicaid waiver reinforces that instead of mitigating it,” John Corlett, Ohio’s former Medicaid director, told Talking Points Memo. “Ohio could help mitigate the racially discriminatory impact of the waiver by exempting smaller units of government — like municipalities.”

Because just like Michigan, and most places across the country, areas where poor and disadvantaged people of color live are surrounded by counties that include the affluent. The choice of using the county level in these work requirements has less-racially charged alternatives, like municipalities or “labor surplus areas” that states dead-set on work requirements could use.

But those other options wouldn’t hurt black people.


Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.

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