Welfare reform results: few jobs, few state answers, refuge in a vacant home

Welfare reform hasn’t been kind to Tamika Thomas.

Eight months ago, the 33-year-old lived in a rental home in Detroit with her four children. She attended Wayne County Community College, where she was working her way toward an associate’s degree in radiological technology that would have led to the first good-paying job of her life.

Thomas was kicked off cash assistance last fall, when the state imposed strict time limits on benefits. Since then, she dropped out of school and lost her home. She tore the boards off an empty home in Detroit and moved in. There’s no heat, electricity or water. The family sleeps on the floor of the empty house and stores food in a Styrofoam cooler.

“Everyone has a story,” says Thomas. “Some are worse off than me. But when you don’t have money to buy tissues, it’s sad.”

More than 11,000 Michigan families were removed from cash assistance last fall in what amounted to a massive experiment in social welfare policy. No other state has removed so many families from welfare in such a short amount of time with so little notice.

Bridge Magazine is collaborating with Michigan Radio in a year-long project tracking the impact of those cuts on state government, charitable safety net providers and the families themselves.

Eight months into Michigan welfare reform, it’s difficult to gauge the statewide impact. Thomas has struggled with the changes, as have other families Bridge has tracked since they were removed from the dole. None have jobs. Some are virtually homeless.

Previous coverage

Welfare reform: Back to the drawing board

Welfare reforms put care-givers in a wrenching bind

More families set to lose welfare assistance

Daily life gets harder for three Michigan families

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

Cuts don't fall evenly across Michigan

11,000 Michigan families confront the unknown

No one knows how typical or atypical those experiences are among families removed from the welfare rolls, who now number more than 13,000. The state hasn’t conducted a survey of former recipients to assess their economic fate. Charity usage, unemployment figures and the limited data available from the Department of Human Services provide just enough information to make the picture hazy.

From the front porch of Thomas’ makeshift home, though, the view is clear. “They messed up a lot of people’s lives,” she says.

Sweeping change sweeps out families

Last year, the Michigan Legislature passed a sweeping welfare reform, limiting cash assistance to a cumulative lifetime of total of four years. When those limits took effect, DHS also began enforcing a five-year federal limit -- a limit that didn’t exempt groups the state had excused from time limits, such as families who couldn’t work because of the need to care for a disabled family member.

About 11,000 families were kicked off in November 2011; about 2,000 more have been “timed out” in the nine months since.

What happened to them? It depends on what data you look at, if you can find data at all.

DHS points to a small number of “timed out” families who applied for emergency housing assistance as evidence that families were not suffering from losing cash assistance.

But indications are the opposite at social services. Phone calls to Michigan 2-1-1, a call center offering health and human service information and referrals, are up 7 percent, according to 2-1-1 Executive Director David Eich. The number of people served by Michigan food banks increased from 1.1 million to 1.5 million in the past year, an increase of 36 percent in a period when the economy was improving.

Jackson County survey found many still jobless

To really know what happened to those 13,000 families, someone would have to talk to them. There would need to be a survey that quantifies changes in the economic status of families. That information would be useful when the state is determining the efficacy of the current reform, as well as considering the shape of future policy.

DHS is not conducting a formal survey of “timed out’ families, according to a DHS spokesman. But a volunteer in the Jackson County DHS office decided to do it on her own.

That volunteer intern attended a public forum on welfare cuts, titled “Picking up the Pieces and Moving Forward,” sponsored by the Michigan League for Human Services, June 19. During an “open microphone” segment of the forum, the volunteer told the gathering of several hundred people the results of her survey, which to the knowledge of social service advocates, is the only survey of its time conducted in the state. Bridge confirmed the numbers with the volunteer after she spoke.

In that survey, conducted earlier this year, 68 percent of Jackson County recipients removed from cash assistance were not currently employed, and another 14 percent had jobs but were bringing home less money than they were receiving from cash assistance (the average monthly payment was $463 in October 2011).

In simplest terms, more than eight out of 10 families were financially worse off now than when they were receiving cash assistance; less than a third had jobs.

The intern, who is not being named by Bridge, later emailed the publication to request that the data not be used because it had “yet to be met with the appropriate approval of my supervisor.”
Bridge would prefer to not rely on data collected by an unpaid intern surveying former welfare recipients in one of 83 counties. But it appears to be the best data currently available for Michigan policymakers to gauge the impact of the state’s welfare reform.

Push into work force hasn't panned out

One of the key tenets of welfare reform is the belief that once dependency on government assistance is severed, former welfare recipients will get jobs. Last fall, welfare reform sponsor State Rep. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, said he expected longtime welfare recipients to “pick up a hammer or a paint brush and man up feed their family.”

Makeda Taylor has tried to do that. The Detroit resident hasn’t found a job in the eight months she’s been without cash assistance, but she still believes she will be better off without welfare. “(Welfare reform) told me I need to get out and get a job,”Taylor says. “I have been out and looking. Most of these jobs, you need one or two years’ experience, but I’m still looking. I’m not going to stop looking until I find what I want.”

Thomas dropped out of college to get a job to support her family once her cash assistance was terminated. A temp agency placed Thomas at a recycling plant in December, but the work ended in February. Since then, she’s been unable to find a job.

Thomas wasn’t home when men came to evict her from her Detroit rental home in February. They threw everything she owned -- furniture, clothing, toys -- into the yard and padlocked he door. By the time she arrived, scavengers had taken most of her possessions.

A neighbor allowed Thomas and her kids to move into a boarded-up home she owned, partly out of charity and partly to keep thieves from stealing the plumbing from the home.

Since February, the family has lived in the house without utilities, beds or a working kitchen.

“I’ve put my application in at all the grocery stores around here,” Thomas says. “I walk to the (library) to use a computer to fill out applications.

“I really want to go back to school,” Thomas says. “But right now? I need a job.”

Thomas says she doesn’t doubt that some people have, through luck or hard work, climbed out of poverty since being kicked off welfare. But she’s more familiar with stories like that of her cousin, who also was “timed out’ of cash assistance last fall.

She lost her home, moved into an abandoned house in Detroit, was kicked out by police, and Child Protective Services is attempting to remove her children. “She’s on the run now,” Thomas says.

Meanwhile, Thomas’ 10-year-old son walks around the neighborhood, looking for odd jobs to help raise money. “He comes home and says, ‘Mom, I got $10 for mowing,’” Thomas says, her voice cracking.

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.

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Thu, 07/12/2012 - 9:06am
Thanks Ron, For writing about the real people that none of our legislators care about. It makes no difference if we agree or like it or not, We have those who are unable to help themselves. I know from experiences in my family what it is like when someone can't help themselves.The state of Michigan and a lot of others are always talking about tax cuts. I'm not a tax advocate but what good does it do to cut taxes on some and have them invest it in foreign countries. Don't tell me that this isn't whats happening today. How many of our own are investing in Michigan? Our legislators can say get a job when they know no jobs are available that even allow someone to pay the necessary expenses of going to a job. You will always have some who will play the syatem but why treal everyone that way.
Thu, 07/12/2012 - 9:40am
What does the state of Michigan know about the state of our economy?What will they tell you? How much of that is true or is it twisted to suit their wishes? How many jobs that are performed by those with a high school education or less have we lost? What kind of jobs have we gained? Where have we left those that don't have the education for the jobs that we have or are gaining? Why do we have the caseload for assistance that we do? How many others that are really trying to help themselves can't get any help from the state agencies? How many of our state legislators have ever had to worry about how to feed their families? How many of them have been a two income (generally professional)? How do you expect someone who has never had the experience of anything to know what it is like?What do you expect when people are only counting dollars and don't know what the effect of those dollars accomplishes?
J A Reyes
Thu, 07/12/2012 - 9:51am
What this article tells you is that people whether well-educated whose skill sets don't mesh with the jobs that are available or who are under-educated have gotten the short end of the stick and the state basically doesn't care. I'm a librarian and there are no jobs for me. Not because I'm not educated but because businesses in Michigan believe that my profession is a dead one as a little sorority girl who worked as a marketing rep told me at a job fair. I wonder how far her company plans to go without information resources to find new markets or demographics. I guess my skills wouldn't come in handy. And you wonder why those people who can are fleeing the state? What happened to the manna that was to drop from heaven when the new business tax was instituted? How many new companies have rolled into Michigan?
Jean R
Thu, 07/12/2012 - 10:19am
There is something wrong with this picture. Tamika Thomas who was cited in this story, was in college and on her way to actually getting the qualifications for a good job. Yet, we as a society had to knock out the assistance that would get her there. I teach at Washtenaw Community College and have students in the same boat. Some of my students are only two classes away from obtaining that degree that would enable them to move into gainful employment in a good paying job, but have been pushed into this same type of situation. They are serious students who have worked very hard to achieve in school, yet are being punished for being poor. Between the new Welfare Reforms and new rules for Federal Loan assistance (150% of credits towards a degree, including remedial help), I see some of my best and most hard working students fall by the wayside. Changing your life requires time and training. When I hear legislators talking about the poor being lazy and saying they should get off their asses and go to work, I get angry. Part of the problem are the sweeping time limits imposed on them. Yes, I am sure there are some who game the system, but there are also these hard working individuals who are working hard at improving their lot in life. A kinder system would make exceptions for those who are "in training" or getting passing grades in college as preparation for the jobs that are available. The days of jobs for untrained being available are long gone. But to obtain the training for the new jobs that are out there now takes some time. As a society, I think we need to help those who are struggling to help themselves and not impose some time limit on that. What we need is balance. That is what is missing with this new program of austerity being imposed everywhere. Balance...assisting those who are making an effort to improve their lives, while at the same time becoming more efficient in services we provide. We have to be humane and compassionate, as well as budget conscious.
Charles Richards
Thu, 07/12/2012 - 12:20pm
This makes some good points, but the author fails to specify what balance should be struck. She ffails to recognize that a balance has been struck, it is just one that she disapproves of. If she were designing a system to help the deserving while not subsidizing those who are not, what balance would she strike? If, in order to help a deserving person would she allow one undeserving person to collect benefits? Would two undeserving persons for each deserving person be acceptable? Five? Ten? Let's phrase it the other way. In order to prevent one undeserving person from being subsidized would she allow one deserving person to be prevented from drawing benefits? Two? Five? As distasteful as such a choice may be, it is inevitably the choice we are faced with. What is her choice?
Thu, 07/12/2012 - 10:30am
Thanks Jean for your comment. I was trying to say the same. I once was a student at Washtenaw.
David Waymire
Thu, 07/12/2012 - 11:17am
This was, from the beginning, an agenda driven by dogma, not facts. The dogma: If we cut welfare, poor people will leave or find jobs. The facts: The states with the most onerous welfare programs have the highest percentage of persons living in poverty. It's distressing that an administration that came in purporting to be based on numbers and "nerd-ism" continues to ignore the basic facts that are available to anybody who bothers to look at census data.
Thu, 07/12/2012 - 11:40am
http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2012/07/03/money-may-make-you-m...Forbes is hardly a left-leaning publication. In nonprofit development, it's well-known that a minority of the wealthy give large charitable gifts and although they may seem large to a "commoner", they're usually very small proportionate to net worth or income. The charitable rate of the wealthy is half that of the middle-class. The irony is that their tax rates with deductions and the max 15% capital gains tax, are usually lower than a working stiff. Is being the son or daughter in a wealthy family luck, or a conscious, driving force from conception? Let's raise taxes on the wealthy and pay off some of the war debt most wealthy Bush conservatives were so fond of. Let's enact the Warren Buffet Rule and start paying down the debt from the tax cuts for the wealthy that helped create this mess. We should put the money where it is needed, not where uncaring Republicans are sending it, "up the ladder".
Charles Richards
Thu, 07/12/2012 - 12:49pm
From Greg Mankiw's blog of December 13, 2007. "A new CBO report gives the effective federal tax rate by income group. These numbers include all federal taxes, not just income taxes, and are expressed as a percentage of household income." Lowest quintile: 4.3 (7.2). Second quintile: 19.9 (13.2). Middle quintile: 14.2 (17.1). Fourth quintile: 17.4 (20.1). Highest quintile: 25.5 (26.1). The percentages in parenthesis are the averages for the period 1979 to 2005.
Thu, 07/12/2012 - 2:35pm
This story doesn't smell right. Section 8, the housing program wasn't cut, nor food stamps and many other programs. So how did the ceasation of the small amount of cash assistance cause her to lose her home? And this in turn caused her to quit school which I assume she wasn't paying for either. Enlighten me.
Crystal Meyers
Thu, 07/12/2012 - 6:07pm
This sanction was overturned in March 2012, and all former recipients affected by the time limits have been invited to re-apply. In addition to this, once these cases closed, anyone able to verify their rental obligation, was eligible for automatic rent payments for as long as there was money available. The application process was the simplest I've seen in years. A VERY small percentage of people even bothered to apply, or produced fraudulent documents that could not be verified. Go figure. This portion of the Welfare Reform Act has been in existence since 1997. Michigan is only one of THREE states left in the United States that has UNLIMITED welfare. All other states accepted and initiated time limits. Michigan had requested numerous waivers, but chose to not do so again. As a mandatory component, ALL persons receiving CASH assistance are required to participate in an employment and training program, which will hopefully lead to employment. This program includes the raw basics such as GED preparation training and pro-literacy courses for persons with reading deficiencies. For those more prepared, transportation, clothing, and day care assistance is offered and readily available. Im curious about why Ms. Thomas was attending school, when she was more than likely REQUIRED to be participating in the Work First program. I'm not promoting pushing someone into a minimum wage job, in lieu of an education, but I'm totally against able bodied people staying on welfare. If Ms. Thomas can go to school, she can go to work too, like many people choose to do. Instead, she made the choice to keep having children that she couldn't afford and keep getting welfare.
Fri, 08/31/2012 - 11:49am
Michigan has had lifetime limits on cash welfare for most families with children since 2007. That is when the state legislature passed a law imposing a 48 month time limit and started counting months against that limit. That law is still in effect and additional families are being cut off under that time limit every month. The families who were allowed to reapply starting in March 2012 had not yet reached their 48 month lifetime limit. Most of the families who were cut off last fall lost benefits because the Department of Human Services implemented a separate time limit which started counting all even $10 of benefits per month for all months retroactively back to 1996. The Michigan Courts have been reviewing whether DHS has the authority to do that. In order to qualify, any family is reapplying must attend work and job search activities as required by DHS or they will again lose benefits for 3 or more months.