11,000 Michigan families confront the unknown

The roles Sharon Matthews has fielded so far are hardly the stuff of cakewalks: high school dropout; single mom; gunshot victim.

But her toughest role yet begins next month: Guinea pig.

The 41-year-old Detroit resident and her 15-year-old daughter are among the 11,000 Michigan families banned from welfare, as the state of Michigan begins to enforce a 48-month lifetime cap on cash assistance.

Matthews knows her benefits likely will disappear forever in November. What she and others, from the office of Gov. Rick Snyder down to local soup kitchens, don’t know is what will happen after that.

The changes wrought to Michigan's welfare system by Snyder and the Michigan Legislature are unprecedented nationally. No other state has kicked so many people off assistance in such a short amount of time, with such little notice. The result is a volatile social experiment that could help transform the state’s economy, or fill the beds of homeless shelters and prisons.

Over the next 12 months, 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’s going to happen to me,” said Matthews.

Neither does anyone else.

Big changes, small bucks

Welfare reform isn’t just about the state shaving a few bucks out of the budget (the annual savings work out to less than $7 per Michigan resident). There are starkly different views between Republicans and Democrats on the role of government in helping the poor.

About this project

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.  

The Family Independence Program, run by the Michigan Department of Human Services but funded primarily with federal dollars, provides cash monthly to low-income families with minor children, as well as to pregnant women. The payment to a family of three, for example, is $492 a month. InMichigan, a family of three must make less than $815 a month (less than $10,000 a year) to qualify for help. (Families receiving FIP aid almost always are eligible for other assistance programs, such as food stamps, which remain in place.)

About 79,790 Michigan families were on FIP in September. Among those, 11,162 families (with about 30,000 kids) will be removed in November, the vast majority being Michigan’s chronic, urban poor.

 (Cuts don't fall evenly across Michigan)

Backers of the changes say only two states now operate without a lifetime cap (an Urban League report lists three: Vermont, Maine and Washington). Michigan already had a 48-month cap on the books, but has not previously enforced it. Like Michigan did previously, other states leave “wiggle room” to allow many recipients to stay on the dole long after they reach the cap.

For example, one study found that, in 2005, about 52 percent of the federal caseload was theoretically subject to a welfare time limit, but less than 3 percent were actually timed out. Other Midwestern states have "soft" caps of 60 months (Indiana cuts off adults at 24 months, but kids in the family still receive cash assistance).

“To me, what makes the new Michigan law particularly egregious is that it counts months retroactively, so that families are being immediately cut off,” said Luke Shaefer, assistant professor of social work at the University of Michigan. “To my understanding, this is unprecedented. These were families who thought they were ‘playing by the rules,’ many of them engaging in their work requirements.”

That’s not how backers of the revisions see it.

“We have a temporary assistance program that has become a permanent benefit for too many people,” said Ari Adler, spokesman for House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall. In fact, the federal block grant that funds FIP in Michigan is called "Temporary Assistance for Needy Families."

Adler added, “People get trapped in the system. You have to break that cycle.”

Get a job

To Snyder, the solution for Matthews and others banned from FIP is simple: Get a job.

About 30 percent of the families losing benefits have been on welfare for 10 years or more. “(They) need to be working,” Adler said.

Will Michigan’s chronic poor move seamlessly from welfare to work? That’s what happened in the mid-1990s, when national welfare reform went into effect. The number of families on cash assistance nationally is less than a third of the number in 1996, when reform took effect, with many getting  jobs, according to research by Sandra K. Danziger, professor of social work at the University of Michigan.

But that was during an economic upswing.

Today, Michigan has an 11.2 percent unemployment rate, and many of those job-seekers have more experience and education than those who have received cash assistance for more than four years. The average time for a jobless person in Michigan to find a job is 53 to 99 weeks.

Many of the soon-to-be ex-recipients already have part-time jobs or are enrolled in some kind of job training program – a requirement of the program, said Melissa Smith, senior policy analyst for the advocacy group Michigan League of Human Services.

Makeda Taylor, 33, of Detroit, worked as a school cook until she was laid off this summer. Now, she walks to the library to look on the Internet for job openings. “It’s true, I do need to get out and get a job,”Taylor said. “But what if there are no jobs or you have to go through training?  I’ve done tried every job and nobody calls me back for an interview or nothing.”

Tamika Thomas is attending Wayne County Community College to become a radiology technician, using her cash assistance from FIP to pay rent and utilities while she tries to make a better life for her four children. When she loses her benefits next month, the 33-year-old Detroiter will have to stop taking classes and get any job she can.

“I’m supposed to be in class today,” Thomas said on a recent Tuesday. “But I’m on my way to a tomato (canning factory) that I heard was hiring.

“If I don’t get a job, I’m going to end up in a shelter,” Thomas said.

Many of the chronic poor have physical, mental or educational challenges that make holding jobs more of a struggle, said Gilda Jacobs, president of the Michigan League for Human Services. “Some are functionally illiterate,” Jacobs said. “Some have transportation barriers. Some have child-care barriers.” Cutting them off assistance will not make them more employable, Jacobs said.

The Rev. Michael Brown of the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission homeless shelter, however, believes some welfare recipients could use a kick-start. “(Cash assistance) is not a help net, it’s a way of life for some people,” said Brown, whose homeless shelter averages 230 people per night. “It will take some time to turn people around to thinking about personal responsibility.”

Just how people survive while they’re turning things around is what worries some organizations that work with the poor.

Scott Dzurka, president of Michigan Association of United Ways, fears a vast increase in homelessness next spring.

The Department of Human Services is offering three months of emergency rental assistance for those being cut off from welfare. After that, “it takes a few months for people to be evicted,” Dzurka said. “People will stay with family and friends until their welcome wears out.”

Where the money is

Based on an average benefit check of $509 per month for each of the 11,162 removed families, the state stands to save about $68 million, but some of those savings could be consumed by costs caused by the revisions.

Crime likely will go up, as some people take desperate measures to feed their children or keep a roof over their heads, said Christopher Maxwell, criminal justice professor and associate dean of the College of Social Sciences at Michigan State University. “People will essentially transition from one public roll to another … shifting (the financial burden) from one agency to another in the budget,” Maxwell said. “The question is, which is more costly, welfare or prison?” (Taxpayers will save about $6,100 for each family kicked off cash assistance; the cost of housing an average prisoner in Michigan is $28,743.)

For fiscal 2012, the Department of Human Services received $1.2 billion in state funds, and will spend an additional $5.6 billion in federal money.

Meanwhile, leaders at food banks and homeless shelters are worried that they may be stretched beyond their resources by the families banned from state help. “I’ve already seen a huge increase in people coming in (to the shelter) with no income,” said Angie Mayeaux, executive director of Haven House inLansing. “I don’t want to cry wolf and say the world’s going to end. These people are survivors. But there are a lot of people on the edge.”

Some families are moving in together to save money, while others are splitting up.

Bonnie Baker, 26, of Jackson, sent her son to live with her brother in Northern Michigan in anticipation of not having enough money when her assistance is cut off next month.

Jerry Buchanan, 52, of Grand Rapids, said he worries his 12-year-old daughter “will end up in foster care and I’ll end up on the streets.

“What’s going to happen when the shelter is full?” Buchanan asked.

“When this legislation was being discussed, there was little thought about what would happen to these people,” said Robert McCann, spokesman for the Michigan Senate Democratic Caucus. “In times of economic downturn, it’s not the time to push people into the unknown.”

DHS will try to track the timed-out families, using databases from other programs, such as food stamps, to see how the families fare in the year after they lose benefits, said DHS spokeswoman Colleen Rosso.

No one is more eager to learn the results of this experiment than Buchanan and the other 11,000 families about to lose benefits.

“They say people will survive,” Buchanan said. “But they may not like the way we survive.”

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Thu, 10/20/2011 - 9:07am
Where are we supposed to start? We have taught these people for years that they don't need to work; that finding a job is optional. So the govorner (whom I do not usually agree with) is making a start. These people were given notice for the past 4 years that this day was coming. So what more do you want?
Ron French
Thu, 10/20/2011 - 9:17am
Responding to Ben, the welfare recipients losing their benefits haven't had four year's notice; They were notified in late August/early September that they would be losing benefits because they had, over their lifetime, received benefits for 48 months or longer. The law was passed this summer, but the 48-month limit is retroactive. That doesn't mean the reform is unfair, but we should acknowledge that the recipients did not have four years to plan for this.
Thu, 05/24/2012 - 10:36pm
Yes this day was coming! Most of us at least myself having been working my butt off and doing everyting I can to become unreliant on the welfare system. I am a single mother and you all make it sound so easy to go out and get a job well its NOT! I have been on and off welfare for the last 5 years, my limit will be here in 2 months. I have had jobs but they never last! I have had training once and I can not get more. They training they assist you with has to be finished within one year or they will not help you. Anyone in my community that knows me will tell you I am the hardest working and dertermined single mother out there! I could go on about this subject for weeks my point is don't judge it until you have been in the same shoes as we are.
Thu, 10/20/2011 - 9:24am
I've seen many prime examples of "welfare for life" families... I've actually called some aplicants and have been told they didn't want the job because they woudl lose their "benefits"... I know, this is a very small portion of the many needy families. I'm discouraged that the legislature did not take a better approach to the assistance mess. Do an in depth review of the families and find those who are truly abusing the system. Yes human services is horribly under staffed, but even if it takes a while to find those who do not deserve it's worth it. Also, what about random drug screens for recipients... if you fail just one test, you are done forever. Case in point, my neighbor down the street who drives a thugged out cadillac escalade... I've smelled pot fumes around his house, yet he still gets assistance from the state.
Thu, 10/20/2011 - 9:51am
It is sad when our legislators are using human lives to experiment as a way to try to save money for our sadly depressed state. The "Get a Job" solution just will not work. There ARE NO JOBS for most of these people. And many of these low-income families don't have transportation and have childcare issues that prevent them from working fulltime--what about that fact? It goes to show how out of reality Rick Synder really is! Or maybe it goes to show just how heartless he is that he would be willing to rip away the shear survival of 11,000 families. Back in the early 1980’s my family had to go onto welfare and it was the most awful existence ever. However, I was so glad it was there to fall back on when there were no jobs and both my husband and I took every opportunity offered to us at that time to finally we got back onto our feet again—when the economy got better! But governor Synder knows that our state has the highest jobless rate in the county, yet he expects these welfare recipients to “Just get a job”??? I hope that he and everyone who agrees with him can sleep well at night when the cold long winter settles into to Michigan because those individuals that are being cut off welfare surely will not be. Think about all the children involved and get some heart people!
Working Citizen
Thu, 10/20/2011 - 11:44am
I have no sympathy for people who are "lifetime recipients" and don't deserve to be. They don't know what they will do now?? And why is that?? Because no one has ever bothered to teach them personal responsibility, and they are content to go through life not even trying because the State is there to "give them a free, no-strings-attached monthly stipend." What will they do now?? They can use the brain they were given and figure it out, just like the rest of us do. They will have to live with other family members, and share cars. Isn't it bad enough that they drove the responsible people out of their homes in Detroit - and they now live in beautiful, large homes, which they got for practically nothing, because no one wanted to live near them. And now we struggle to find affordable housing out in the suburbs, while they easily get Section 8 vouchers to use to yet again take housing away from us. I live barely above poverty line, and I don't qualify for ANY kind of help whatsoever. I stopped having kids after 2, when I realized my kids' dad was a deadbeat. I did not go on to pop one kid out after the next, so that free money for them would keep coming. That is SO not fair to the rest of us. THERE NEEDS TO BE A CAP ON THE NUMBER OF CHILDREN GOVERNMENT WILL SUPPORT!! I am sorry that kids are going to suffer ... but that doesn't make it any more OUR responsibility. I did not have all those kids - why are my tax dollars being forced to support them? As for the comment, “These were families who thought they were ‘playing by the rules,’ many of them engaging in their work requirements.” Well, not according to the studies done, which another article states that only 21 percent of people required to be in job training in order to receive benefits were actually doing it. I don’t call that a majority. And regarding the “crisis” that all these people are now in … that only goes to show that they haven’t bothered to give any thought to changing their “welfare lifestyle” whatsoever, until they were forced into it. They intended to play the system for as long as they could get away with it. Well, it’s time for TOUGH LOVE. The people will now be forced to make themselves employable and otherwise find alternate means of support. The woman crying about having to send her son to live far away with her brother - well, why doesn’t she pick up and move in with her brother also? What - she has her “good time party friends” that she doesn’t want to move away from?? What else would keep a person from relocating if they are obviously unable to find work where they’re at, and it would be a wise decision to try somewhere else?? Why stay and hang around in a city or state where there are low job prospects?? What do other RESPONSIBLE people do? They decide to go where their prospects might be better. These ignorant people do not know how to make a plan or set a goal. They have no personal pride. Maybe it’s time they learned these things … and if “tough love” by means of a cold cut-off is what we now have to do (since they haven’t been trying to do any of the above-noted things for themselves for YEARS), then so be it … maybe it will finally FORCE them to take responsibility for themselves and their families. The woman saying she’ll have to quit school - why?? Why can’t her family or church pitch in to help her attain this goal?? Here’s a person who is TRYING to help herself and make her life better - and she has no family, friends or church willing to help her accomplish this? Why?? Because the family and friends all rely on the meager welfare themselves? These people need a wake-up call …. We don’t have anymore time to pussy-foot around the issue. I have a debilitating disease and yet I get up to go into work every day. I face pain and fatigue from this crippling thing, yet I refuse to quit … I am FORCING myself to suffer through it - because I have pride and dignity. AND … it feels good to know I take care of myself and my family without having to beg for help. These welfare people should try it themselves, sometime … As for the “no work” issue … tell me - do young people not have work because they go to apply and for interviews wearing baggy pants and t-shirts?? Then slouch in the chair at the interview, uttering 2-syllable words, in bad English so they’re barely understood?? Do they show enthusiasm and initiative?? Oh, I see. They don’t know HOW a responsible acts when job-seeking. They parents (and probably most of their family) have never held a job, so there’s no one to teach them. That’s what Michigan Works is for - to help people like that. But they don’t want to go (as the other article stated, most people don’t show up for their appointments with them). As for single parents who don’t have a high school education - what’s stopping them from taking a GED test??? Then, have their family help with child care while the go to a trade or vocational or technical school, or take classes at the community college??? These people don’t use their brains and think. They fear failure, fear losing their free money, and often, are just too lazy to try. Oh, yes …. Change is long overdue.
Fri, 10/21/2011 - 12:15am
You clearly are a person with no common sense or first hand knowledge of the people that are being affected by this change. First let me address your comment on lifetime receipants this 48 month cap is not just for people who have been in the system for 10 years straight, it affects people who have had hard times and needed help for a short amount of time got back on their feet and for whatever reason fell on hard times again and needed assistance again. Secondly the small stipend that individuals receive does not cover the minimum of what is needed to sustain a household so to think that an individual who gets $402.00 a month for a family of 2 can find a residence to rent, pay lights gas and water and buy household cleaning products not to mention clothes and shoes is outright dumb of you and since you have so much initiative and are so intelligent I am sure you can do the math. Many of these individuals do not have a support system to help them pursue many of the opportunities we take for granted. While there may be a few not participating in the required training the majority are sanctioned as a result of non compliance therefore your argument that the majority do not is idiotic. There are many of us struglling thru personal obstacles to make it we have families that assist us and or organizations that provide some type of assistance. While I understand some people are ignorant to the true statistics since you are so confident to address baggy clothes, no pride and initiative I am going to let you in on a little secret the majority of those being affected are not black. The children do not deserve to suffer to save a few pennies, Programs need to be streamlined and programs put in place that actually help individuals obtain self sufficiency not what you call tough love. I hope you continue to work thru your "debilatating disease" and never need assistance because with your philosophy we should not be paying for anyone to get any help in their time of need. We should lump everyone in one category with no regard for individual circumstances. This change will not make people work it will only make people desperate
Thu, 10/20/2011 - 12:21pm
I wonder what impact this will have on the students impacted by this program? HechingerEd | New report: Dropout rates five times higher for poor students: http://bit.ly/pisMWe I agree that reform is necessary and better welfare to work programs, but this isn't the way to do it!
Thu, 10/20/2011 - 2:22pm
According to the article most of these people were either furthering their education or working but most unskilled work does not provide the wages or affordable health benefits for a family of four. A large proportion of Walmart workers make so little and their health benefits are so meager they still qualify for aid. Employers are still going to hire illegal immigrants with or without fake papers for unskilled jobs. Let's deal with illegal immigration and really get tough with businesses that hire illegal workers before pushing families with children off support.
Tue, 11/01/2011 - 10:26pm
I am one those recipents that is being cut off. I am 26 single mother of three. My children father is deceased so I fell on hard times. I work part time and a college student and that 489 a month which is disbursed twice a moth just helps me take care of bills. My job doesn't offer health insurance so yes I went to the state but the fact of the matter is they could have been more professional and gave a timely notice that the benfits were going to be cut. For the people assume it's just blacks being cut off you need to wake up its all races who have fell on hard times and trying to recover.