What will they do?

More than 11,000 families will be banned from cash assistance next month, in the biggest one-day dumping of welfare recipients in the state’s – and possibly the nation’s – history. Will those families blend into the work force? Will they lose their homes? Will they find help from charities, churches and nonprofits?

Over the next year, Bridge Magazine will chronicle the lives of Michigan families as they struggle to adjust to life without aid. Here are a few from around the state.

Struggling in Jackson

Bonnie Baker is a 26-year-old mother of three who has struggled to make a go of it since she split up with her husband. She worked as the manager of a Family Dollar store for a while, but hasn’t been able to find a job in the past year.

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. 

“I’ve been trying,” she said. “It’s not easy.”

Baker is homeless even before her cash assistance dries up, couch-surfing between the homes of friends and family. She’ll continue to receive $560 a month in food stamps after the loss of her Family Independence Program benefits. But the loss of cash assistance makes it tougher to find a job.

Without cash, she can’t buy gas to drive to businesses to apply for work or pay for a baby-sitter for her 4-year-old daughter while she’s looking for work. Michigan does offer child-care assistance, but eligibility is limited to "family preservation, high school completion, participation in an approved activity and employment."

A mother at 16 and a high school dropout, Baker has struggled to overcome questionable choices she made as a teen. Suddenly losing her only source of cash will “either break me or make me stronger,” she said. “I hope it makes me stronger, for my kids.”

Caught in a loop in Detroit

Tamika Thomas has been on a welfare merry-go-round for more than a decade, going off aid when she had a job, sliding back onto assistance when she didn’t. After years of dead-end jobs, the 33-year-old single mom decided to go back to school. Using her cash assistance to pay the rent and utilities for her Detroit apartment, Thomas enrolled in an associate’s degree program at Wayne County Community Collegeto become a radiology technologist.

Getting the degree would mean a steady job with benefits, a coveted passport into the middle class.

Then Thomas got a letter from the Department of Human Services telling her that her cash assistance was being cut off, because she’d received more than 48 months of benefits in her lifetime.

Now, she is dropping out of school to look for a job that will keep a roof over the heads of her four children.

She’s behind on her rent even before she her FIP benefits are cut off. If she doesn’t find a job, she and her kids will have to find a homeless shelter.

On Tuesday, she skipped her college classes to apply for a job at a tomato canning factory.

“They want me to get a job,” Thomas said. “But what they’re doing is keeping me from getting a job.”

Car crashes; life broken

It was an accident. It could have been anyone in the car. But it was Jerry Buchanan -- and he’s been on welfare ever since.

The Grand Rapidian was seriously injured in a car accident a decade ago. Since then, he’s been unable to work. “I have two herniated discs,” said Buchanan, 53. “It causes my left leg to go out and my arms and hands to go numb.”

Buchanan has applied for Social Security disability aid several times and been rejected. He’s appealing that decision, but without an attorney to advise him how to work the system, he feels his chances are slim.

He’s used his $402 monthly cash assistance to pay rent and utilities for the home he shares with his 12-year-old daughter. That ends in November.

“They sent me a flier telling me different organizations that can help with utility bills, or if you get an eviction notice, here’s another organization that might help you pay the rent,” Buchanan said. “When that runs out, you’re out on the street.

“I called my (DHS) caseworker, and she said ‘All we can do is talk to you, but there’s no reason to make an appointment because there’s nothing we can do for you.’

"If I get cut off, I may have to go to a shelter. But what happens when the shelter gets full?," he asked. "People are gonna start committing crimes, doing whatever they have to do to survive. You get arrested so you can stay warm and eat. And what happens when that gets overcrowded? It’s gonna be a mess.”

Searching for the elusive job

It’s 10 blocks from Makeda Taylor’s apartment to the public library. She knows every crack in the sidewalk along the route, every boarded-up home, every vacant lot where a house once stood. She walks the path regularly, a poor-person’s pilgrimage to the library, where she can use a computer to check the job listings.

The 33-year-old Detroit native is out of work and out of time. The $400 she gets each month in welfare cash assistance stops next month. The state says she’s been getting aid for too long and she should get a job.

Taylor agrees. But that hasn’t helped her find work.

Laid off from a job as cafeteria cook for Detroit Public Schools, Taylorhas been unable to find a new paycheck. “I’ve been trying to find a job, but no one’s calling back,” Taylor said. “My gas is shut off. I’ve called agencies for help, but they say they don’t have any money.

“My 9-year-old, she’s sickly, she has asthma. I’m doing what I can, but nobody’s hiring," she explained.

Teetering on the edge of an economic cliff even with cash assistance, Taylor doesn’t understand how cutting that aid is supposed to help motivate her to get a job.

“I’ve done tried every job and I get nothing,”Taylor said. “I’m in a bind.”

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Graydon DeCamp
Thu, 10/20/2011 - 9:17am
Good policy is not built on anecdotal evidence. You can always find hard-luck cases, just as many people accustomed to public assistance can always find reasons not to help themselves. It's easy to feel sorry for the woman who "had" to quit training to take a job, but millions and millions of Americans do find a way to work AND go to school at the same time. Decades of shoveling cash at hard-luck stories is what brought us to this crisis, and the only way out is to stop shoveling cash. As Jesus put it: "The poor you will always have with you." Get used to it.
Tue, 12/13/2011 - 11:23am
We may be headed back to state run communal living for our unfortunate fellow citizens. Dormitory living, communal meals and some members watch the children while others get schooled, do the laundry for all, prepare meals, make the beds, vacumn and mop, etc. This is a much better solution than insecure shelters scattered around the cities. It would take some organization but these folks could become active contributors to their own survival with the opportunity to get out of the welfare trap. I'm sure there can be tasks that even sum partially disabled members could do. People can work for their room and board even at the most remedial tasks and avail themselves to a controlled environment free of drugs, alcohol and tobacco. The children would be cared for yet still be close to their parent and could be guided to becoming participants in society rather than pepetuating the welfare state. Maybe I'm dreaming and this solution means infringing on somebody's right to watch TV all day long and wait for the handout.
Mme DeFarge
Tue, 12/13/2011 - 6:09pm
"Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?"
Fri, 12/23/2011 - 7:59pm
I wonder how many people got that reference to the classic tale A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It's funny how our current century is beginning to look like the century it was written in.
Tue, 12/20/2011 - 11:00am
Its not about punishment. Its about affordable responsibility. We provide mission meals and over night housing for our street people for no other requirement than to hear the message. How many people could be helped back on the right track with work ethic coaching and opportunity training. Mme DeFarge, your attitude has kept multiple generations trapped in a welfare state based on "they can't so, we need to do for them". You have made them slaves to the state. So sad.