As part of our State of Opportunity project, we’re following parents as they struggle to get off public assistance and make a better future for their children. We'll be bringing you occasional updates on families as we follow them over the course of the project. This is one of those updates.
I first interviewed Keisha Johnson on a steamy summer day last June. Johnson, 25, grew up poor and is still poor to this day. But she has three reasons she wants to climb out of poverty. Their names are Kaleb, Jurnee, and Alan, Jr.
Last time she was on the radio, Johnson talked about where she wants to be in three years. She wants to have her own home, she wants her children enrolled in good schools, and she wants to have a steady job as a secretary.
But first, she knew she would need some help to get there.
"A lot of women in my neighborhood, they think being on Section 8 and being with Human Services, they think ‘Ok we can do this forever!’ No it’s supposed to be just a start, just a push to help you out for right now, and then you’re supposed to grow and progress on your own that’s the whole point of the program," explains Johnson. "So that’s what it is for me right now."
That was June. I checked in to see how’s she doing now, and well, things aren't so great.
I caught up with Johnson on a Thursday morning when she was getting her children ready for school. As she brushed her daughter's short hair into a ponytail, Johnson starts to tell me how she's essentially living on zero dollars. "They sent me a letter in December saying you're cut off your cash assistance, which was $592 a month," says Johnson.
The “they” is the Michigan Department of Human Services. I tried calling DHS half a dozen times to get a comment, but no one returned my calls.
Before Keisha Johnson can fill me in on how she lost her cash assistance, she has to get Kaleb, Jurnee and AJ to school. Once all three children are sufficiently bundled for the 30 degree weather, we head outside.
"My car been out for two months. The tire is bent in, all the way in, so I can’t drive it at all," says Johnson. So we do what Johnson and the kids do every day and walk the 20 minutes down Oakman Boulevard in Detroit to the children’s school.
Once she drops them off and we walk the 20 minutes back to her apartment, she pours herself a glass of ice water, and starts in on her story.
Johnson shares with me how DHS sent her a letter saying she needed to fill out what’s known as a “redetermination form” to see if she still qualifies for cash assistance. But she says the letter didn’t come with any form to fill out and was told to wait for a call. When no call came, she called DHS. No response. A few weeks later, there was the letter saying her cash was cut off.
In January, Johnson’s DHS worker signed her up for a mandatory week long program called Work First, and she was told her cash would be turned back on 21 days after she started the program.
But Kaleb and AJ have asthma and wound up in the hospital the week of the program, so Johnson couldn’t go. She says she showed up the next week, but was turned away.
Since then, Johnson has been back and forth to the DHS office trying to get her cash turned back on. So far, she’s been unsuccessful. Meantime, there are bills to pay:
"My DTE bill is sky high," says Johnson. "$533 with a shut off notice."
She also has to pay rent and car insurance. Incidentals like new gym shoes for Kaleb and more diapers and wipes for AJ have to wait.
One of Johnson’s personal goals was to take a 15-week computer tech class to learn a marketable skill and develop a career. But she says she’s too stressed right now and can’t focus on the class until her cash is turned back on.
When I asked her why she doesn't just get a job, she was quick to answer. "True," she says, "but I want to do this program 'cause I want a career. I don't just want a job, I want a career. And I can’t possibly work at the same time, and try to take care of children, get them off to school. It’s gonna be kinda hard for me. So I figure, turn my cash assistance on, help me out for another six months and I’ll be done, I’ll be off."
But first she needs to get a hold of DHS - something I couldn’t do either .