Investigative
7:00 am
Fri April 6, 2012

Struggling to survive after state cuts assistance

 Michigan Watch is working with the online magazine Bridge in a year-long collaboration, following families who were cut from welfare cash assistance by a Department of Human Services decision late last year. 

Eleven thousand Michigan families were cut from welfare cash assistance late last year. Cash assistance is the $500 a month or so that helps the poorest families pay their bills and rent.  The Department of Human Services says the state can’t afford the cost.  So, the agency cut off those who’d been on welfare the longest. Advocates for the poor say there’s no need for those cuts… there’s plenty of federal money to pay for the benefits.

While the agency and advocates argue and maneuver in court, thousands of families are in trouble. Here's one family's story.

I got to the house where Tracy Davenport is staying a little early. She arrived a couple of minutes later. A relative had driven her to the doctor. Davenport struggled to get out of the vehicle. She used a cane to slowly make her way up the driveway. As I watched her (clearly she was in some pain), when she looked up, she smiled. A big welcoming smile. Despite all the troubles she’s had, she told me later she tries to keep a positive attitude.  

Tracy Davenport is only 44 years old. She cannot work. We’ll go over why in just a bit.

We sat down on the sofa, relatives and a dog in her mother’s house wandering in and out as we talked.

Davenport, like thousands of others in Michigan, has been trying to figure out how to get by after the Department of Human Services cut her from cash assistance.

In the past, the state agency has used federal grant money for cash assistance to help people who had been on welfare for longer than usually allowed if they meet certain circumstances. The Department is no longer doing that, saying the state can’t afford it. Although, there is still federal grant money available for it.

Davenport knows many believe the majority of people on welfare are just not willing to work. They’re gaming the system, living on taxpayer money because they can get away with it.  Everybody’s got a story of welfare abuse they’ve heard from somewhere.

Tracy Davenport says you cannot count her among the stereotypes.

“I’ve been working since I was 16 years old and so I did for myself.”

So, why isn’t she working now? Because of her health problems, Tracy Davenport falls down… often.

“It’s not like I get dizzy and fall, it’s just like my body just collapses. And that’s the original reason why I was let go from my job, because the falling was kind of being a liability.”

She’d advanced her career at a women’s crisis center from direct care for residents to manager. But the falling got worse. And then there was so much time in the hospital.

One of her heart valves stopped operating correctly. Her heart is just not pumping enough blood. She’s fallen so many times that her knees and back are damaged and arthritic. She has high blood pressure and a thyroid condition. Her days are basically trying to make it from the house to the driveway for another doctor’s appointment… and hoping she doesn’t collapse in the parking lot… again.

After she lost her job seven years ago, she got shuffled from one state agency to another, trying to get some help. Eventually, she began receiving food stamps, Medicaid coverage, and cash assistance for her and her 12-year-old daughter. But, even that wasn’t enough. It didn’t cover the bills.

“So, eventually, I lost my house and everything and I’ve been living with family ever since.”

Now, when she says she lost her house… there’s actually more to the story. She and her sister had purchased a two-family home together

“She lived upstairs and I lived downstairs. And in the process, I lost my income, so she couldn’t afford to pay the whole mortgage and both our gas and lights and so, actually, I caused not only myself, but my sister to lose her home. And, you know, when it first happened, I didn’t have nowhere to go to take all my things, so I lost all my personal things, my furniture and everything. And my vehicle went next. I just came out with just my clothing and that was it.”

With no home, no car, she had no choice but to move in with 64-year-old mother.

At first, with food stamps and cash assistance, she could at least feed herself and her young daughter, pay for school expenses, pay for the gas when her relatives drove her to the doctor. Then she was cut off cash assistance late last year.

It’s not clear that she should have been cut off.

You would think with those health problems the Department of Human Services would have classified her as disabled. That would have meant instead of getting help under the Family Independence Program, she should have gotten help through the State Disability Assistance. Then she would have been exempt from the cash assistance cut off.

“I had all my paperwork and everything in so I shouldn’t have been under that category at all. But, they didn’t switch it over.”

Our colleagues at Bridge magazine have found a number of cases where it appears people should have continued getting benefits, but the Department of Human Services has cut them off. 

Tracy Davenport hopes to get help from one of the federal Social Security disability programs. She won’t know for a while whether she can get that help. She needs help now.

I asked Tracy Davenport what she would say to the people at the Department of Human Services who decided that she and thousands of others should be cut off from the state safety net for the poor.

 “Would they think it was fair if they woke up and had to look in their kids face and know that there’s nothing they can do for them? You know, thinking if for some reason family couldn’t take care of me, where would I go? I would be in a shelter or on the streets. And that’s terrible," Davenport said, becoming a little upset.

"You know, with my youngest child, you know, sometimes I feel like I’m just going to fall apart, but I try to keep a good frame of mind. But, not always. I do get fussy and I have crying spells. But I do pray. So that helps.”

As a society, we have to decide whether the risk of a few people abusing the welfare system outweighs the risk that we’re abandoning families who truly need help.

It’s valid to ask how long the state should help.

After all, welfare is to help people get by until they can get back on their feet.

The people we elected to the legislature and the governor have decided there are limits.

But the Department of Human Services has gone further. The agency decided on its own to restrict more people than it has in the past, stopping cash assistance for those 11 thousand families, including an estimated 40 thousand children. By the way, that figure might be low. The agency did not keep track of numbers. Bridge magazine estimates as many as 15 thousand families lost cash assistance.

A circuit court judge has now ruled the agency exceeded its authority. The people who run the Department of Human Services are appealing that judge’s ruling.

The question is whether the Department of Human Services can decide on its own to change procedures and cut welfare help to so many people.

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