By Ron French/Bridge Magazine
When the long-awaited cash appeared in her Bridge card account June 29, Elizabeth Weaver had her list ready.
She made an appointment to repair her car, which had been leaking coolant for months. The 31-year-old bought shelves, and filled them with toilet paper and toothpaste, things she can’t buy with food stamps.
“I need to stock up,” says the Bay City woman. “I don’t know the next time I’ll have money.”
Weaver and her disabled son are among about 13,000 Michigan families removed from cash assistance as a result of time limits placed on welfare benefits. A court ruling in a lawsuit fighting the time limits forced the Michigan Department of Human Services to, at least temporarily, allow “timed out” families to reapply for benefits.
A recent ruling by the Michigan Court of Appeals makes it doubtful that the reprieve will last. But for families that reapplied, the cash is helping pay bills, purchase back-to-school clothing and restock pantries.
Just how many families reapplied for benefits, how many were approved and how much money has been paid, is unclear. According to a DHS response to a Freedom of Information Act request made by Bridge Magazine, the state doesn’t know how many families have reapplied, or the status of those applications.
But DHS did provide almost identical information in documents filed in the lawsuit challenging the cash assistance time limits. In court documents dated June 15 and July 11, DHS states that 7,317 families reapplied for benefits; 1,774 had been approved, 618 denied, and about 5,900 have been referred to JET, the state’s worker training program that most cash recipients must attend. More than 2,000 additional families that would have been “timed out” in recent months remain in the program pending the outcome of the court case.
Makeda Taylor of Detroit reapplied in May, but hadn’t received a payment as of the beginning of July. “What I know is that it’s still pending”Taylor says. “I have called the (DHS case worker), she says she doesn’t know how long it’s going to be.”
Tamika Thomas, now living in a Detroit home without utilities or furniture, reapplied for benefits April 30, and hadn’t received assistance by the beginning of July. “It usually takes 45 days to get a check after applying,” Thomas says. “I’ll be able to pay my bills. But nobody has money yet.”
While the Court of Appeals sided with DHS on the legality of the time limits, DHS will continue to pay cash assistance to families who reapplied for benefits until the case is closed by the Genesee County Circuit Court, where the case originated, or the case is decided on appeal at the state Supreme Court.
It’s also unclear how much additional money the state is spending on cash assistance as a result of the court ruling. If the “timed-out” families referred to in court documents are paid the state average of $463 per month, the state would be dishing out about $3.6 million per month that it hadn’t planned to disburse.
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.