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.
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.