Welfare reform leaves families without a net, and off the radar

Three months after the launch of an aggressive welfare reform, Michigan has kicked more people off the dole than expected and saved the state millions of dollars. How the approximately 15,000 families cut off from cash assistance are surviving, though, isn’t as clear.

We may never know. The state isn’t monitoring the impact on those families, and social service agencies don’t have a way to do it themselves.

“All policies have consequences, positive or negative,” said Gilda Jacobs, president of the advocacy group Michigan League for Human Services. “We need to make sure the policy is not making people’s lives worse.”

The reform instituted in Michigan’s welfare system in October was unprecedented nationally. No other state had kicked so many people off assistance in such a short amount of time, with such little notice. No one knew what would happen. It was a massive social experiment that could transform the Michigan economy or fill the state’s homeless shelters and prisons.

In a year-long series, Bridge Magazine and Michigan Radio will report on the results of that experiment. We’ll chronicle the lives of families as they adjust to life off welfare, and assess the economic impact of reform on state government and nonprofit charities.

“I don’t know what my last option will be,” said Sharon Matthews of Detroit, whose family lost cash assistance in the fall. “To move in with family? I only have one sister in Michigan and she’s not in a position to take in another whole family. My family can’t help pay the rent forever. I’m praying I don’t end up in a shelter for women and children, but I may have to.”

Welfare cases plummet

The Family Independence Program, run by the Michigan Department of Human Services, provides cash monthly to low-income families with minor children, as well as to pregnant women. In Michigan, a family of three must make less than $815 a month (less than $10,000 a year) to qualify for help.

Michigan lawmakers have embarked on a huge experiment in social welfare policy: a strictly enforced lifetime cap on cash assistance benefits. How will this affect the thousands of families receiving this aid, the communities in which they live and the course of public policy? For the next year, Bridge Magazine will provide regular reports from ex-recipients and policy-makers to judge the effectiveness of this change.IPREVIOUS COVERAGE:

11,000 Michigan families confront the unknown

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Tracking the consequences of Michigan's welfare experiment

The number of Michigan families receiving aid skyrocketed during the state’s decade-long recession, reaching a peak in early 2011 when one in every 42 Michigan residents was receiving cash assistance.

This fall, the state placed a lifetime limit of 48 months on cash assistance, and began enforcing a 60-month limit that was set by the federal government, but had been ignored.
The impact was dramatic. DHS had estimated that slightly more than 11,000 families would be kicked off welfare by the policy. But in the first month alone, almost 13,000 families were removed from the rolls; by the end of December, the number of FIP cases was down 15,799 -- a drop of 20 percent in three months.

Counting family members, more than 54,000 Michigan residents (most of them children) lost cash assistance in three months.

In some cases, families lost cash assistance, but gained some of it back in food stamps. Food stamp levels are based on income, and cash assistance was counted as income. DHS spokesman Dave Akerly* gave an example of one Michigan family that lost $493 per month in cash aid, but saw their monthly food stamp allotment increase by $240.

“It (more food stamps) doesn’t pay the rent, but it helps,” Akerly said.

Food stamps are a federal program, so an increase in food stamps does not hurt the state budget.

The cash assistance decline is saving the state big bucks. FIP is funded primarily with federal dollars, but the state paid the tab for families over the federal 60-month lifetime limit, explained Akerly. In December, the latest month for which statistics are available, the state doled out $10 million less in cash assistance than it did in an average month in the year before the reform.

What of the families?

Less is known about the policy’s impact on people.

Advocates of reform argued that when government checks stopped, families would find jobs. Rep. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, who shepherded the reform bill through the Legislature, said that former recipients would “pick up a hammer or a paint brush and man up and feed their family.”

There were 43,000 jobs created in the state between September and December, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But are former welfare recipients getting jobs? No one knows.

Critics worried that families would become homeless, but that hasn’t happened so far.

Barb Ritter, project manager at the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness, says there hasn’t been a large increase in people seeking shelter, and she doesn’t know if families who were kicked off welfare are among the families at shelters across the state.

Three months after losing cash assistance may be too early to tell what will happen to the families. “It normally takes a while for people to actually go homeless and both DHS and MSHDA (Michigan State Housing Development Authority) are trying to launch some bridge housing supports for the most vulnerable in the group,” Ritter said. “Homelessness is normally a lagging indicator.”

“There are always unintended consequences,” MLHS' Jacobs said. “I’m not sure we have enough data to know whether it makes sense to kick people off.”

Why not get the answers?

There are ways to monitor the impact, said Luke Shaefer, assistant professor of social work at the University of Michigan. Many of the families kicked off cash assistance continue to be eligible for other assistance programs, such as food stamps, or child care assistance, that are also administered by DHS. Some of those programs, including food stamps, require recipients to report income. The department could cross-reference the data to analyze whether those who were kicked off welfare eventually increased their income. The same could be done with Child Protective Services to discover whether the loss of cash assistance increased child abuse.

Akerly said he knows of no plans to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the impact of the welfare reform on those who lost benefits. Akerly did say that DHS would examine the impact on a “case by case” basis.

Melissa Smith, senior policy analyst for the Michigan League for Human Services, said DHS is “very defensive” about tracking the families, but that monitoring is vital for policymakers to determine the true impact of the reform; when some are saying the families will flow seamlessly into the workforce and others are saying they’ll become homeless, data should be used to find the truth. Otherwise, “people are just going to disappear and they’re just going to not know what happened.”

Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011 after having won more than 40 national and state journalism awards since he joined the Detroit News in 1995. French has a long track record of uncovering emerging issues and changing the public policy debate through his work. In 2006, he foretold the coming crisis in the auto industry in a special report detailing how worker health-care costs threatened to bankrupt General Motors.

* DHS Spokesman Dave Akerly's name was misspelled in the original edition of this story.

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David Waymire
Thu, 02/02/2012 - 9:16am
So, has anybody looked at what states have done things like this in the past, and whether they help reduce poverty? It's my understanding that the states that do the least to help low income families have the highest poverty rates; those that do the most have the lowest poverty rates. I know that's not part of the standard religion, but a little fact finding, perhaps by those who consider themselves nerds, would be useful. Rep. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, who shepherded the reform bill through the Legislature, said that former recipients would “pick up a hammer or a paint brush and man up and feed their family.” What evidence is there that this has happened in other states...compared to giving a helping hand that improves the educational and job-fulfilling capabilities?
Thu, 02/02/2012 - 1:02pm
California has the most people on welfare and they are also spend the most money on welfare programs, $45 bIllion a year followed by New York with a budget exceeding $26 billion a year so by the facts that I found in a quick search, it looks to me that the less you spend, the less people you have on the government dole.
Aaron Smith
Thu, 02/02/2012 - 4:18pm
Are those numbers a percentage of population or just raw numbers? If it's just raw numbers it could be meaningless unless it's a percentage of population.
Thu, 02/02/2012 - 9:56am
54,000 residents, most of them children, have lost these benefits. Gov. Bean-Counter and his merry band must be delighted. Removing the safety net for these families must be a real rush for these well-to-do members of the House and Senate. Break out the champagne! Order the foie gras! Winning! In THE INFERNO by Dante, special rings in hell were reserved for certain categories of evildoers.I'm sure that one of those rings of hell is reserved for the gutless wonders in the legislature who take away the lifelines of children in need. Christ said: "Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, that you do unto me". That lesson must have been glossed over by the Lansing crowd. I am ashamed of our lawmakers.
Aaron Smith
Thu, 02/02/2012 - 4:20pm
Just FYI - The money is not given to the children. It's given to the parents. While I honestly believe that most parents would spend it wisely, I have personally seen a lot of cases where it was not. Additionally, studies have shown that cash assistance when spent on bridge cards has gone more towards unhealthy food than it has for fresh healthy food. So in that respect the cash assistance was harming more than helping.
Kimberlee Kenyon
Fri, 02/03/2012 - 11:04am
I agree with the first part of your statement. However, food stamps are used for food not cash assistance. Unless they run out of food stams and need food. Unless you are a cashier, you wouldn't know which assistance program they were using to make their purchase. If healthy food was cheaper and/or companies offering coupons for organics or produce, you might see all Americans buying healthier food not just those on welfare. I don't think it is ethical to judge what someone eats just because they receive welfare. Even if you saw them they buy flour, milk, eggs, and butter it doesn't prove that they are not going home and baking a cake with it.
Andrew Brown
Thu, 02/02/2012 - 11:03am
the message is ' we want your taxes and will take them for 20 or 30 years. Fall out of work and we will give you a few months money and your on your own
Thu, 02/02/2012 - 2:09pm
What is so good about being on WELFARE? Isn't the goal to be a self supporting person who can fend for themselves! Sounds like its time to throw a party to celebrate the new found freedom that these 15,000 person are experiencing!
John Strate
Thu, 02/02/2012 - 3:17pm
It's extremely irresponsible to enact such so called "reform" without setting aside resources (staff, money) to conduct an impact evaluation to determine its consequences. As taxpayers, we pay Rep. Horn's salary. His program theory seems to be that welfare recipients are all lazy and irresponsible and that if benefits are cut off they'll have to start looking for work. The theory assumes that they all are able to make some type of contribution to the labor market (have skills in demand by employers). The theory assumes that they are all healthy and not hampered by other disabilities (no chronic diseases, no mental illness, no substance abuse problems). The theory assumes that none of them have child care or other caregiver responsibilities. The theory also seems to assume that there are ample jobs around or that welfare recipients are creative and have enough initiative to make their own. It's a nice narrative that fits an old stereotype held by many of those who have been fortunate in life. I'd urge him to visit the Dept. of Human Services Office some day at Greenfield and Joy Road in Detroit and sit down with some of those applying for benefits, talk to them for awhile, and learn their stories first hand. It would only be a few hours out of his life and he might learn something new.
Thu, 02/02/2012 - 4:09pm
HMM the governor HIRED 500 Socialworker in 2011,,...... The Department of Childenforcement hasnot been able to get the childsupport for the CHILDREN In Michigan and IT IS A MONEYMAKER , for every dollar the STATE collecetd the FERDEARL goverment matches $X$ ..so why, and where is the money for the children...Minum $ 815 to qualiefie for DHS.....HMMMM that make 50% of the SENIOR on Social SECURITY avieabale ...so HOW CUM THEIR ARE CUTTING OUR FOODTSAMPS that the FEDERAL GOVERMENT iussed, we have 6 grociere store out of business in our Twon..... Most of the SENIOR are VETREANS and GET a $ 10.00 a months FooDstamp Budget...
Fri, 02/03/2012 - 10:31am
GREAT investigative piece on an issue that is being swept under the rug. Governor Snyder sent around an email today with a link to his interview with Andrea Mitchell about Michigan's "turn-around." It was nauseating to watch him talk about "positive relentless action." This is the result: tens of thousands of individuals and families cut off from help.
A Michigander
Fri, 02/03/2012 - 1:46pm
John Strate and I think a like...yes, go sit in a Social Services office for hours on end with those people who are there to apply or see their caseworker and hear the stories. It is not a good existence to be on welfare, nor is it meant for a lifetime either, but 4 years and you are out—that is brutal and cruel. However for some, that must be their means as they are mentally challenged, have medical issues, or other reasons that keep them from being gainfully employed. As for the seniors and the vets who need some kind of assistance, shame on us if they find themselves in such disparity that they have to apply for welfare. I have lived on welfare--it is not a garden party existence--and thank God I was only one welfare for a short time. As much as I did not like being on welfare, I was so glad it was there as it was the only place we could have turned to at that time in our lives.. As for the money not going directly to the children as Aaron stated above, yes that is true. However most parents do want to take care of their children and the money does go to do just that. The only way to make sure of that is to have unexpected social service visits to the families, and we know that is not going to happen. There are always going to be cheaters whether it be for welfare, taxes, or whatever...but it is not humane to cut off the poor and needy to save the MI thousands of dollars in a state with the highest unemployment rate and expect them all to "just get a job". My daughter is a single parent without a car and was using the Detroit Smart bus services to get to her job…well guess what…they cut out that route and now she cannot get to work any longer. So transportation is a big issue too for these welfare recipients to be able to “Just get a Job!”. But let’s cut taxes for businesses because that is the way Gov Snyder says Michigan will be able to get back all the jobs that left our state—NOT! I do believe that having a way that welfare recipients or able body people can give back by either helping them find real jobs, or with having them clean up our highways or do some volunteer work would be helpful. Giving people money does not make them feel good or give them a sense of pride or accomplishment to help them to move onto bigger and better things for themselves and their families. But you would need to figure out the transportation and childcare issues before programs like that can make real strides in keeping the welfare recipients to a minimum. As far as I can see, the rich just keep getting richer and the poor, more poorer and now they have no place to turn in our state! Heartless…
Fri, 02/03/2012 - 4:22pm
I am curious to know why the governor of the dashboards did not set a tracking mechanism and a reporting dashboard to monitor those dropped off welfare. Also, no mechanism was provided to use other means to help and replace the funds of those dropped off welfare.
Sat, 02/04/2012 - 3:08am
If Synder thought the outcome of this inhumane policy in a state with high employment would be positive, I'm sure he would have setup the tracking apparatus. He's another Republican spin doctor that has rich friends rather than poor ones.
David Paris
Fri, 02/03/2012 - 8:51pm
"Rep. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, who shepherded the reform bill through the Legislature, said that former recipients would “pick up a hammer or a paint brush and man up and feed their family.”" I know one thing. If I were one of those families getting kicked off welfare, my last pocket full of change would go for a one-way bus ride to Frankenmuth, that'd be my new home-base!
Jim Zielske
Sat, 02/04/2012 - 10:10am
No other state had kicked so many people off assistance in such a short amount of time, with such little notice or..... This fall, the state placed a lifetime limit of 48 months on cash assistance, and began enforcing a 60-month limit that was set by the federal government, but had been ignored. 48 / 60 months does not seem like a short period, how long is long enough? When is it a hand up, 48 months, or hand out for ever!
Sun, 02/12/2012 - 11:02am
I believe people that have worked most of their lives, lose their jobs should be able to draw welfare, they paid in, they should be able to get help. The ones that bothers me is...those that lay around making babies all day long never having EVER planned to support them, and them thinking the more babies I have the more money I get. For those of you that are against abortion.....seriously, after these people that has made a career from the tax payers or welfare gets cut off, they don't want their kids anymore, they did not want them from the start..I say my tax dollars should pay for abortions...for those of you against it, you raise these unwanted babies....or , stay out of it. Tell the mothers to be, if you do not state who the FATHER is, you get no money from working tax payers, that way they can attach the so called daddies wages. MOST of the so called daddies are LIVING WITH THE SO CALLED MOMMIES OF THESE BABIES, If the people/persons that have been leaching off the system for a long time are to receive any inheritance of any kind or they win money at the casinos (yes they are gambling our money away) or they hit the lottery they are to pay back they money they leached from us. I have always wondered where these career minded welfare leaches are going to leach when its um...retirement time?
Sun, 08/10/2014 - 6:34pm
This is wrong i just got cut off it is affecting my family extremly i dont get my stamps till th19th i bought food in between on the 9th now that i dont get cash assistants now what am i to do America the land of the homeless and starvation