Welfare reforms put care-givers in a wrenching bind

Todd Stafford has an uncontrollable neurological disorder that causes him to beat himself in the head hundreds of times a day. The beatings have made him blind and caused his head to “look like Frankenstein,” he says. His wife, Tina Stafford, doesn’t have a job because someone needs to be at their St. Joseph County home in case Todd injures himself seriously.

Elizabeth Weaver’s son has cerebral palsy and a rare skin cancer. She stays at their Bay County home to care for the 6-year-old, who cannot feed or clothe himself.

Brian McFalls has brittle diabetes, end-stage renal failure and is legally blind. His wife Tammy stays home to give him medications and monitor him for insulin reactions.

These are the situations legislators had in mind when they exempted families caring for sick and disabled spouses and children from the state’s massive welfare reform last year.

Yet those families lost their benefits anyway -- to the surprise of state political leaders.

While state law protects families of the disabled from being cut off by Michigan’s 48-month cap on cash assistance, that exemption isn’t spelled out in the federal 60-month cap

The result is that about 700 Michigan families are facing a heart-wrenching choice between tumbling deeper into poverty by staying home to care for their loved ones, and endangering the health of disabled family member by going to work.

“I’ve seen stories on how (welfare reform) has impacted people who have the ability to work, but there are not many stories about how it affects those who cannot,” said Tammy McFalls. “If I go to work, I put my family at risk -- my husband could die. Where does this leave us?”

The plight of those 700 families is a microcosm of a growing debate over the role of government in the lives of the poor. Michigan is among states that are tightening requirements for receiving aid. Reform advocates see the removal of as many as 15,000 families from cash assistance and another 15,000 from food stamps as a way to nudge the state’s needy into the work force, while also dumping families advocates such as DHS Director Maura Corrigan believe are scamming the system. Critics of reform view welfare reform as an attempt to balance the books on the backs of the state’s most vulnerable.

Last year, Michigan enacted a sweeping welfare reform aimed at getting families off the dole. Legislators passed legislation that set a 48-month lifetime cap on cash assistance, banning more than 11,000 families from welfare in October, when the cap went into effect. Since then, the number of families removed from welfare after reaching the lifetime cap has grown to an estimated 15,000.

The measures passed by the House and Senate and signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder exempted some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens, including senior citizens, pregnant mothers, domestic violence victims and adults who are physically or mentally incapacitated. Also excluded from the 48-month cap were families in which the only able-bodied adult was needed at home to care for a disabled family member.

Such families had been exempted from welfare work requirements before the reform. Several families told Bridge that DHS workers had told them that it was cheaper for taxpayers to provide cash assistance (which averaged about $400 a month) to have the able-bodied adult stay at home than for taxpayers to pay for a health-care worker to come to the home while the able-bodied adult went to work.

But those exemptions weren’t handed out easily. The disabled family member had to qualify for federal Social Security disability for the family to be considered for the exemption. Families had to be certified by a doctor annually that there was a need for around-the-clock care.

Such families account for a small percentage of all cash assistance cases – less than 2 percent before welfare reform began in October. But because many of the disabilities were permanent, the families tended to stay on cash assistance a long time.

A shock from the mailbox

The Stafford family thought they were going to be exempted from the new welfare time limits. That’s what legislative leaders were saying to the media, and what the reform bills spelled out.

But in late August 2011, the Staffords and about 700 other Michigan families received letters from the Department of Human Services declaring that they had “reached your lifetime limit for cash benefits and are no longer eligible.”

The Legislature had exempted caretaker families from the state’s new 48-month time limit on cash assistance, which, by all historic references, would have been the final word. There was a federal 60-month limit, but Michigan had always ignored it.

However, when state welfare reform passed, DHS decided to begin enforcing the federal welfare cap. States are allowed to pick and choose any groups they want to be exempted from the cap. DHS chose to exempt single-parent families in which the parent is disabled, and children who live under guardianships.

Notably absent from the exemptions were caretaker families.

“I was told I would always be exempt, even if there was a cutoff point, because of my child’s needs,” said Weaver, 30, whose son cannot dress or feed himself and who has had multiple surgeries for a genetic skin cancer.  “My child is completely reliant on me.”

Weaver lost about $500 in cash assistance, and now struggles to pay her bills with the $600 her son gets in disability each month. She qualifies for more food stamps than she used to because of a lower monthly income. Those additional food stamps help -- but don’t pay utility bills.

“I don’t want to sit on welfare. But my son is sick a lot. Jobs won’t let me take off whenever he’s sick. I’m between a rock and a hard place.”

DHS did not provide Bridge with an exact number of families caring for disabled loved ones who lost cash assistance because of the enforcement of the 60-month federal time limit. But there were about 700 fewer caretaker families on cash assistance in January than in the month before the time limits were put into place. DHS officials assume that the vast majority of those 700 families were timed out of the system.

Todd and Tina Stafford have appealed their loss of benefits. While they await a hearing, the family continues to receive cash assistance. If they lose their appeal (as is almost certain – no appeals have been won, according to The Huffington Post), they must repay the money they’ve received since they were supposed to be cut off in October.

Todd Stafford gets $693 a month in disability payments; Tina Stafford gets $828 a month in cash assistance (the family has five children). When that money is cut off, the family’s monthly income will drop by 55 percent.

“It’s life and death for us,” said Todd Stafford. “When we lose this money, we’re homeless.”

Kathleen Dygas stays at her Macomb County home to care for two children who have a variety of ailments. Without cash assistance, “I’ve got to find some kind of employment,” Dygas said. “But how do I split myself in two so I could work a full-time job and the other me can take care of (her kids)?"

A difference of opinion in Lansing costly to families

Michigan is one of 11 states that don’t exempt disabled caretaker families from time limits.

Brian Rooney, deputy director of public policy and compliance at DHS, emphasized that cash assistance isn’t the only support caretaker families receive. Families receive federal Social Security disability payments. Most receive food stamps.

But so do families with a disabled head of household, and they continue to receive cash assistance.

All told, about 10,000 Michigan families continue to receive welfare checks even though they’ve been in the system for more than five years. Exemptions for guardian cases (children who aren’t living with either parent) are required by the federal government.

But families with a disabled head of household can thank Gov. Snyder.

“The governor told us he wanted disabled folks exempted,” Rooney said. “I’m a former Marine, so you go with the commander’s intent and he said, broadly speaking, that I’d like to have disabled folks exempted from this.”

By contrast, DHS didn’t see the Legislature’s exemption for disabled caretaker families as representing legislative intent -- an interpretation disputed by some lawmakers involved in the writing and passage of Michigan's new welfare rules.

“I’d be shocked if anybody anticipated this,” said Rep. Rick Olson, R-Saline. “It’s clear what the intent was.

“I work in a (House Republican) caucus with a number of conservative members,” Olson said. “If the intent of the Legislature was to cut them off, we would have cut them off.”

Dick Posthumus, senior adviser and legislative lobbyist to Snyder, said it’s not unusual for things to “slip through the cracks” in large legislative packages. “To my knowledge, nobody even discussed” the possibility of disabled caretaker families being exempted only for the state cap, but not for the federal cap, Posthumus said.

“It’s clear what they wrote,” countered Rooney. “It’s clear what the TANF (the federal welfare cash assistance) law says. If they didn’t read the TANF law in conjunction with their own law, I can’t help that. I can only enforce the law that is given to me by Congress and the state Legislature.”

Gilda Jacobs, president of the Michigan League for Human Services, is incredulous that DHS didn’t understand what the Legislature wanted. “The intent of the Legislature was very clear that they did not want these people cut off,” Jacobs said. “You’d think that would be the guiding principle.”

Several families that spoke with Bridge said they were frustrated by comments made by DHS Director Corrigan, who called welfare reform a battle of “the vulnerable against the gamers” -- with the state focusing its limited dollars on the truly needy while kicking off those who Corrigan believes have been gaming the system.

“People think anyone getting welfare is lazy and lowly,” Dygas said. “They made the poor and the disabled into scapegoats for society. People don’t understand what hurdles people face trying to care for the disabled.”

Disabled caretaker families should be considered among the most vulnerable, argues Donna Pavetti, welfare policy director for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C. “Families that reach time limits often have significant employment barriers (such as) caring for a child with a serious medical conditions,” Pavetti said. “When families are cut off without regard to their circumstances, we are denying families with very low chances of succeeding in the labor market the only stable source of support available to them.”

As an aid recipient, Weaver agrees in principle to Michigan’s efforts at welfare reform. “There are some people who want to take advantage of the state -- I understand that completely,” she said. “If I could have found a way to do that with the hand I was dealt, I would have.”

“It’s not like we’re proud of being on welfare,” said Stafford, who worked as an engineer before his disability forced him to quit. “It’s a stigma. I would trade anyone in an instant to have my sight back and not get hundreds of blows to my head every day.”

Dygas doesn’t hold out much hope for the policy to be changed. “If you don’t have money to fight, nobody cares,” she said. “That’s why this was allowed to happen. They didn’t take money away from the rich. Let’s just blame the poor.”

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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Tue, 03/20/2012 - 10:27am
This is a screw-up of epic proportions.It is a system failure when families that clearly need help are denied benefits because writing the rules did not do the homework. Laws made by humans can be changed and/or updated by humans. Simply pointing at a faulty law as the cause of inaction is a serious act of nonfeasance of duty. Should we bring back the poorhouses so these unlucky people with disability and illness can be looked upon with scorn by those better off? Buy them bus tickets to move elsewhere and take their problems with them? Let these folks fall completely through the safety net and wind up on the streets? I am revulsed by the authorities in charge who would lump all the needy as "gamers of the system". Walk in their shoes for a day or two. See how they live. Show some compassion. It is your job to do so.
Janet Van
Tue, 03/20/2012 - 10:42am
Every day, the state of Michigan seems to find a new way to disgust me.
Tue, 03/20/2012 - 11:08am
Why don't you call it like it is, instead of "lawmakers", call it "Repuglican lawmakers". They did it, they caused the problem, now they are bemoaning their actions. Remember this when you go to the polls in Nov., remember who screwed the least able among us.
Thu, 04/12/2012 - 9:41am
Actually if you read the article, it was DHS that made the mess this round. The current legislators have repeatedly said they did not want this to occur. The legislature that was responsible for the laws was in service 4 years ago which would have been democratic at that time.
Tue, 03/20/2012 - 11:28am
It's sad however the handouts have to stop! Sorry I have to agree w/ the governor and support this. We have to start somewhere . . and there are plenty of other programs these people and many others can look into. Whether through the county, their church, and/or their communities. if you don't like the rules of Michigan lawmakers, there are other states.
Lynn S
Tue, 03/20/2012 - 12:38pm
Really? There are "plenty of other programs these people and others can look into..." Do you have any facts or figures to back that up? I'm a social worker, and I can tell you from experience that there are NOT plenty of programs. You need to get you head out of the sand and face reality.
Tue, 03/20/2012 - 4:35pm
I have to agree with Gov. Snyder here too. There is too many people abusing this system. I see 3 cases here that maybe justified for assistance. I also have seen 30 more that are not. When a young girl is encouraged to give birth to more kids so the mom can call CPS on her own daughter. The grandmother of the child then gets a state check for offering to take care of the kid. Then the mother of the child still lives there! I have seen almost $98,000 a year in scams like this done to the State of Michigan. What is wrong with Fiscal Responsibility? Why are taxpayers stuck with these bills anyway, shouldn't we be worrying about a community and not individuals?
Wed, 03/21/2012 - 12:19pm
Tue, 03/20/2012 - 1:23pm
The Republican legislators should do what the Democrats would not do. The legislators should get busy and pass a welfare revision to fix the problem ASAP.
Tue, 03/20/2012 - 2:01pm
This is why I left Michigan two years ago, being seriously ill and on Medicaid. The State of Michigan cuts programs to the truly needy with no regard for these people to survive. It's criminal. If I didn't move, I would probably be dead now.
Allan Blackburn
Tue, 03/20/2012 - 2:05pm
The last writers lack of compassion is underwhelming. Obviously, Sissy, if there were other programs available in the community, their county, their church it would have been utilized. Many people have the mistaken notion that, when the safety net is cut off, churches are going to flock to provide these much needed services and money. Churches are made up of people. The same people that are developing a severe lack of compassion exist in these churches and believe that they are paying out their hard earned money to people who do not want to work.. If they are already annoyed in having the money come out in the form of taxes, they certainly are going to be resistant to donating money to the churches they think are suddenly going to step up to the plate to provide social services. It also depends on people, such as yourself, to make donations at that church so that they can support humanitarian efforts. Have you opened your checkbook lately to support these people? If not then, why? Counties also relied on the revenue sharing from the state which has dropped off considerably in the last several years. So the counties do not have any money without raising taxes on their people. There are a couple of issues here at work. One is that government is for....."the people" and it should not distinguish if the people are rich, poor, educated, what race they are, etc. The government is supposed to provide security in the form of defense and a safety net for it's citizens. That is why we have had Medicare and Social Security for so many years and states are charged with providing health care in the form of Medicaid. We also had cash assistance, welfare, disability and other safety net programs. If someone convinced you that all people who are not, whatever you are that makes you a success, and that is bad; therefore these people should be cut off; someone convinced you of garbage. If you force people in to desperation, they will do desperate things. My belief is that; "Pay me now, or pay me later." If you cut them off then we pay for their emergency room visits in higher premium costs, we pay for their jail and prison stays out of tax-payer monies, we pay for their shelter stays, etc., etc. The other issue is that a director of a department is over- interpreting the law as written. The lawmakers themselves never intended for the bill to be interpreted this way. The charge now is for the governor to get his department head under control or this will be an embarrassment to the state, hence, to the governor. The governors never like to micro-manage but department heads tend to be political appointees. A sure fired way to piss off a governor is to have a department head make the governor look bad. It's known as a career ending decision in most circles. A country's moral compass is on solid ground only when we realize that we are judged on how well we take care of the most vulnerable in our population. The people in this story certainly seem like they qualify.
Fri, 11/09/2012 - 11:19pm
Thank you Allen. Well said.
sam melvin
Tue, 03/20/2012 - 6:06pm
WHO ARE the POOR:? most of them are soldiers , families, wife, mothers and children THAT GAVE there life and there time of living without there military members away ON DUTY to the Goverment of the UNITES STATES , children grow up with out there Soldier father around and OUR HOMELESS Soldiers WHERE is there STATE.FedreaL Goverment ? our vetreans oNLY get $ 10,00 a months in Foodstamps , Not what the USDA allots a male 51-75 is entiled to $ 304. in FODSTAMP/Snap, SO WHERE is there gratful country and there people to PUT THERE MONEY where there mouth?blog is. A veterean working for the VA gets less then FEDREAL MINIUM WAGES? Where is the $600.00 That congress iussed for ourVietnam vets? Pay out while they still live.
sam melvin
Tue, 03/20/2012 - 6:14pm
yeah the big COLA Cost of living allowance 3.6% COST US SENIOR x CUT in FOODSTAMPS/Snap. So we are deeper in the whole now then before the cola. THE GOVERNOR of the Great STATe of Michigan called the 3.6% EXCESS INCOME....
David J
Tue, 03/20/2012 - 10:07pm
No surprise in DHS Director Maura Corrigan's INTERPRETATION of the law -- her judicial background (do we remember her "contributions" as a State Supreme Court justice?) and decision-making is predicated on the concept of "textualism" (promoting adherence to the ACTUAL text of statutes). The Governor appointed her, but will he have the "nerdy nerve" to make clear what she should do now as a member of the EXECUTIVE branch, in "carrying out the law" that was (as legislators have remarked) "clearly intended." How sad that Ms. Corrigan and her staff cannot mix compassion along with their "new sheriff in town" attitude at ridding our state of the welfare scammers!
Wed, 03/21/2012 - 10:35am
David I entirely agree with you about the DHS director and I shudder to think that now she also has control over Michigan Rehabilitation Services and Michigan Commission for the Blind - a new Snyder Executive order. With her lack of compassion and "textualism" what is in store for this vulnerable group. As far as Sissy's comments are concerned I wish for you an opportunity step into the shoes of one of these families for 1 week and then decide how much help is out there. I have worked in the special needs field for 39 years and the help is not there. My take on the State of Michigan at this point is that - like the days of Hitler - get rid of the poor, the helpless and anyone who does not measure up to being 'a successful business person" and get the people from other countries to improve.
David J
Tue, 03/20/2012 - 10:11pm
Forgot to extend kudos to Ron French for ANOTHER fine reporting job; I always feel sooooo much better informed by such efforts in this PRINT media outlet than in MOST ANY OTHER source of state news. Thanks, Ron.
Wed, 03/21/2012 - 12:17pm
it's unfortunate and a few have ruined for many others . . parents lived on it and now their children's children are following footsteps! A way of life! KUDOS to Snyder and the government! We have to draw the line and the line has been drawn. People will just have to learn to not expect the government to bail them out all the time! If you don't like it do as the other poster did . . Leave!
Kathleen A. Dygas
Sat, 04/07/2012 - 5:36am
I pray you never have to eat those words. It only takes one accident to make you disabled, and if you don't have rich family, you will see much more clearly what you don't see now. It's a shame that you have to have it happen to you in order to feel something for someone else. I feel sorry for you. I am one of those families in the article, and my children matter. Children are our future. Cuts should not have been made to the most vulnerable. I was already $5000 under poverty level BEFORE the cuts. Do you actually think caring for people that are disabled isn't work? You should be so grateful to God that you are not dealing with these situations yourself. Instead you are looking your nose down at people who are!
Fri, 11/09/2012 - 11:24pm
Kathleen, thank you for a tasteful response. What i wanted to say in reply to Sissy was not appropriate.
joseph stephens
Mon, 06/27/2016 - 4:57pm
I was 29 years old. I had been working in construction. Decided to better myself and went to college for an Rn degree. I was lucky enough to have my tuition paid for and I worked part time to cover my own expenses. Well, I was forced to move back home with my parents a year later because I lost my roommates who got married and moved out. About 6 months later, my mom had her first failed hip surgery, then another. These surgeries left her completely disabled. My father was 71 at that time and still working full time thanks to the stock market crash. So, I had to start taking classes in the evening and quit my pt job to care for my mother. Health insurance policies, except for extravagant ones few have, do not cover home care. They provide little help. So I had to begin taking out school loans in order to pay for my car, gas, and just personal expenses. I had the year before this met an amazing woman I was deeply in love with. Being a student and working was hard enough, but caring for my mother was high stress and emotionally jarring to say the least. I hung in there. Less than a year later, my sister abandoned her 3 children (twin girls of 3 and a boy of 4) after their father committed suicide. Being quite in love with his grandchildren, my father assumed legal guardianship. Now, remember, he was still working full time and now 72 years old and quite frankly not blessed with any parenting skills at all. A controlling and stubborn and impossible man. So, who was now burdened with these 3 small childrens care? Me. I love those kids, but I had enough to deal with already, but I hoped that my sister would come back quickly and be a mother. She didnt. Flash forward 1 year. I stayed in school, but realized I could not become an Rn because of the nature of the nursing program which is 10 hrs a day m-f and that's without accounting for the 20 hrs of study time needed per week. So, I chose the degree which my credits transferred best to, social work. I was able to continue classes mainly in evenings. Of course, the loans were beginning to add up. The love of my life was getting fed up with me. I was living in a war zone. 3 kids who were not in school yet and were having emotional issues, a completely disabled mother who was manic depressed, and a father who would not let me enact working strategies for the household because HE was the boss. I was losing my hope for life and becoming a manic depressive myself!!! My father retired the next year and I was hopeful I could regain some sanity and time for my own life, but he would walk out of the house in a rage and not come back for hours when things upset him the slightest. This was multiple times a day. I was stuck and losing myself and my hopes and dreams for my life that were so possible just a few short years earlier. Once the kids began school full time, I was able to go to work full time, and still attend school part time. So I thought. Flash forward to today. The kids are now teenagers of 14 (the twin girls) and 15. They are mainly self sufficient, but still a lot of work at times. My mother is no better and my father is in the beginning of dementia. He was just not capable of caring properly for my mother for long or the children. I had to drop out of school 2 semesters from my bachelors degree completion. I am $80,000 in debt from school loans I took out to be able to live over 10 years. That's not exactly living large, do the math. The love of my life? She moved on less than a year ago because I had become so depressed and in debt that she could no longer see a future for us. I have no career, no money, no friends, no hope. The children will lose their social security benefits they have received from their deceased father in a couple years and I don't expect my parents to live more than 3-5 years more. I will be left with what? There is no help for anything in this world. It is a greed infested, rotten cesspool of a world. I will not let my parents die in state run nursing facility where they will be treated just a little better than the jews were by the nazis. I love them. What everyone needs to realize is there are two types of people in this world. Those who have souls and are capable of real love; and those who would murder their own children before suffering any type of inconvenience. Sadly, the second type are the ones with all the power and money. They control this world, period. The only hope is for the rest of us to start joining together. Of course we are too overwhelmed with responsibilities to do much for ourselves or each other. Most of those we call friends or family have abandoned us or are unable to deal with our problems. Or they have busy lives, happy lives, and how can we burden them with our painful existence. Ten years ago, I was a young, happy, young man. Looking forward to a life of my own. I don't even know who I am now. I exist for the needs of others. Is there a charity or state agency or a federal program for me? No, and for those of you who act as if your burdened by paying that extra %3 in taxes each week for what little help there is for those who need it. Consider this. Put us all in the streets, abandon our loved ones for death, take away the small sliver of dignity we hold on to, and save your $20 a week. You best be prepared to start murdering all the poor and needy, because we will be very inclined to murder you.
David Waymire
Thu, 03/22/2012 - 3:40pm
Ironic that Michigan lawmakers and its DHS leaders take this action against the most needy and disabled...while we speed through the Legislature at the Lt. Gov's urging legislation that will let millionaires get free services for their autistic children.
sam melvin
Thu, 03/22/2012 - 6:38pm
Who makes the rules ..Poor are the result of bad legislation or one that not enforced.Take the office of childenforcement , How many children donot gets there checks? The President O`Bama allocated $ 1 BILLION to the STATES for every dollar the STATE colleceds the STATE get ONE $$$$$$ it is a win/win solution,BUT the STATE of Michigan employees are incapabile of follwing the rules?law .. we have 19 000 children inFOSTERcare but ONLY ONE JUDGE to oversea the CARE? Why are the chldren not raise by there parents/so some are on drugs /so is garndma(legal drugs). WE need parenting classes in our school from Jr. high on ..create citizen not dependent!
sam melvin
Thu, 03/22/2012 - 6:39pm
We the poeple .....yes what did you say ...
Tue, 04/09/2013 - 8:59am
Hi, thanks for sharing.