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Kicked off cash assistance by bureaucrats

Last month, more than 11,000 families were kicked off Michigan’s Family Independence Program, a cash assistance welfare program.

Lester Graham with Michigan Watch is working with the online magazine Bridge in a year-long collaboration, following families who’ve lost the state assistance. 

The legislature has been blamed for the loss of benefits to those 11,000 families, but its vote to restrict families to 48 months of benefits in a lifetime only immediately affected about 100 families.

It was an administrative decision by the Department of Human Services which resulted in kicking all those other families off of cash assistance. 

The new law allows no more than 48 months of benefits in a lifetime and it started counting months in 2007.  On its own, the agency, started counting months in 1996 and decided anyone who’d received help for more than 60 months since then would be cut off. 

That’s how those 11,000 families suddenly lost cash assistance.

Sheryl Thompson is acting deputy director of field services for the agency.

“The feds gave us 60 months and the state can no longer afford to pay the portion which is why we had to go with the federal lifetime limits,” said Thompson.

But there are federal block grants the state can use and has used to help people beyond the 60-month limit if they were unable to work. 

Jackie Doig is the senior attorney with the Center for Civil Justice based in Saginaw. That group is suing the Department of Human Services on behalf of families who lost cash assistance under the new DHS decision.

Doig says Michigan has the money.  She said at the end of the state’s fiscal year there was somewhere between $70 million and $95 million in federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds.

“Federal welfare dollars, that had not been spent, that are fully available to fund every single family that’s been cut off. There’s more than enough money there,” said Doig.

Doig said the Michigan Department of Human Services should simply follow the state law and not add its own lifetime limit. She says there should be exemptions for people who simply cannot work.  But DHS is not allowing the hardship exemptions it has in the past.

“You’re kicked off of the 60 months. It doesn’t matter if DHS has already recognized that you can’t work," she said.  "You’re still off no matter what.”

Doig argues the DHS bureaucracy does not have that authority.

There is another reason so many families lost cash assistance so suddenly. 

In past years, when people who’d been on state assistance got a job, the state offered them what it called Extended Family Independence Program –called Extended-FIP or E-FIP.

It amounted to payments of $10 a month.  It kept people enrolled in the program which allowed the state to leverage more federal money. 

Karen Holcomb-Merrill is with the advocacy group the Michigan League for Human Services.  She said those $10 E-FIP payments are costing families dearly now.

“The problem now is that for folks who were getting $10 a month, that counts, now, as a month. When they go back retroactively, whether you got your full grant  -which for a mom and a couple of kids was typically $500 a month- whether you got $500 a month or $10, that now counts toward your lifetime limit,” said Holcomb-Merrill.

I talked with Sheryl Thompson with the Department of Human Services about that.

"And the reason why we did that is in order for them to continue to receive any kind of benefits that would be available to them which is direct support of services just to continue to give them a little help," said Thompson.

LG: Did they have any idea that this was going to be counted toward any kind of lifetime benefit or lifetime limit?

“No. I don’t believe that they did know that,” Thompson said.

Thompson said it cannot make an exemption for those months that families only received $10 a month payments.  She says the Department of Human Services does not have that authority.

So what are families who’ve lost cash assistance benefits doing? 

Our partners at Bridge magazine found some of the families who’ve been kicked off of cash assistance.

We talked with Orintha Petrimoulx in Bay City.

She is the mother of two little boys.  Seth, her youngest, was born eight weeks prematurely in December of 2007.  There were a lot of long-lasting problems. Until just this year, she’s had to be with him around the clock.   Even now, it’s frequent trips to the doctors. 

Orintha got a letter in the mail notifying her cash assistance was ending just as school started.

“I remember thinking 'How am I going to get my school supplies for my oldest son? How am I going to make sure that they both have clothing for school without having to rely on my parents?”

She’s now living with her retired parents.

Now, some of you are asking, “Why doesn’t she just get a job now?”

I asked her that.

She said going through all the years of desperately worrying about her son has taken its toll on Orintha.  She said mentally, she cannot cope.

“I have social anxiety disorder. I- uh, I went- I go to the grocery store and I have an anxiety attack. I talk with people on the phone, I get an anxiety attack.  Even talking to my own doctors,” said Petrimoulx.

She told me even talking to me in the comfort of her parents’ home was almost more than she could take.  Her doctors tell her she cannot handle a job.

“It’s not a choice of me choosing to be home and not choosing to work," she said. "I would love to be out there earning my own money than having taxpayers pay for me to be home taking care of them.”

Orintha said even if she can get past her own issues, she still has her little boy’s health problems to deal with.  She said no one is going to hire her, knowing she’ll have to call off work so often to take her son to his many doctors' appointments.

Orintha Petrimoulx said hers is not one of those stereotypical families who’ve been on welfare generation after generation.  She is the first in her family ever to go on welfare cash assistance.  But, she said she really needs the help.

Her mother, Marian, said she and her husband –who’s retired from the Navy- are taxpayers.  They’ve paid taxes all their lives.

“And right now, I feel the system has failed us. It has failed my children and it has failed my grandchildren. It’s failed a lot of people.”

Orintha is fortunate.  Her parents are giving her a place to live. 

Not everyone has family members who can or will help.

Senator Coleman Young, II represents part of Detroit.  He said it’ll be much tougher for many of those 11,000 families who’ve lost state assistance.

“They’re probably going to go to homeless shelters. I think a lot of them are probably going into some of these abandoned houses and sleep there. They’re probably going to have to move in with people that will probably take advantage of them or hurt them. Or they’re just going to be homeless. Period. They’re just not going to have a place or residence to live at all. I mean, we’re just treating people as if they’re trash,” said Young.

At the Department of Human Services, Sheryl Thompson says losing cash assistance, which often is used to pay rent, does not mean families are completely without help from the state.

“They can continue to get the Food Assistance payments, they can get Medicaid, they can get some childcare in order to help them while they go out and find a job,” said Thompson.

But finding a job is tough for those who can work.  Even a two-parent family where both got minimum wage jobs would be hard-pressed to survive.

It’s been a month-and-a-half since those 11,000 families with nearly 30,000 children lost cash assistance. It will be a tough holiday season and a tough winter for many of them.

Sitting at the table with Orintha I had to ask, "What are you going to do?"

She answered, "I don’t know," and continued as she fought back tears, "I pray every night. I ask for guidance. It’s a very awkward time.”

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.