Detroit's Welfare Empire

The wholesale migration of labor from the Southern stales to the North has frequently been accompanied by a sharp rise in welfare cases in the cities where new residence is established. For a look at the critical situation in Detroit we have turned to RAY MOSELEY, a 27-year-old native of Texas, a graduate of North Texas State College, and a reporter for the Detroit FREE PRESS.

DURING World War II, when people on the lower rungs of the social scale began migrating to the cities in wholesale lots, they were welcomed nowhere more than in Detroit. The automobile plants that had turned to defense production and needed workers desperately published advertisements throughout the country urging people to come to Detroit. In some cases, buses were sent into the South to help round up those willing to come. Today there are 45,000 people on the city’s welfare rolls, 75 per cent of whom are migrants and 80 per cent of whom are Negroes. The cost of supporting them is almost $30 million a year. The state and county governments spend another $30 million or so throughout Wayne County on general relief and Aid to Dependent Children, and total welfare spending in the state in these two areas runs to about $114 million a year.

With Michigan now facing the most severe financial crisis in its history, public officials at all levels of government have been looking for ways to reduce welfare costs so that other essential services will not be crippled, and some important economies have been effected in the past year, But the task is not easy, because unemployment in Michigan still is more than twice the normal rate — 95,000 unemployed in the Detroit area alone.

Most of the migrants who come to cities such as Detroit from the South generally find that it is much easier to get public assistance in their new homes than it was in the places they left behind. If they are Negroes, they find that as potential voters they have far more political power than they could dream of possessing in the South. Political officeholders are anxious to cultivate them in every way possible. Public welfare is one way, and politicians as a rule do not like to see it burdened with restrictions.

In Michigan, migrants technically must live in the state for one year to be eligible for public assistance, but the law provides that “temporary assistance” may be given to those with less than a year’s residence. They cannot add to the length of their residence while they are receiving temporary aid, and the law fails to define “temporary.” So hundreds of welfare clients have been getting temporary assistance for years, rendering the residence requirement useless. Last year temporary relief in Wayne County cost the taxpayers $450,000.

The policies of the State Welfare Commission are no less charitable to the needy than the laws of the state. They permit a woman with illegitimate children to qualify for ADC, as long as she has no more children born out of wedlock. But one who violates this restriction cannot be dropped until ADC workers find some other plan for her support. In Detroit the other plan is the City Welfare Department. Thus, each month about sixty mothers are cut off the ADC rolls in Detroit because they have had another illegitimate child, and promptly are added to the city welfare rolls. The taxpayers continue to pay the bill.

In 1958 the number of Aid to Dependent Children cases increased 40 per cent in the county that includes Pittsburgh, 33 per cent in the Chicago area, 22 per cent in Los Angeles, and 11 per cent in Detroit. The increase nationally averaged 14.8 per cent.

A recent survey shows that since 1958 the costs of serving welfare clients in many cases do not stop with the monthly welfare checks. They pyramid into other areas of direct local responsibility and impose heavy strains on budgets that for the most part are tottering.

Take, for example, the case of Tom and Lucy and its costs to the taxpayers of Detroit, Wayne County, and the State of Michigan. Tom and Lucy, who came to Detroit from Georgia, are alcoholics, and life for them is quiet and restful. They get drunk at night and sleep it off during the day. The Detroit Public Welfare Department sends them a check every month.

Tom was a truck driver before he quit several years ago. The Welfare Department requires Tom to do some work in various public agencies occasionally to help compensate the taxpayers for supporting him. Lately he has not bothered to keep his job appointments. He says he has high blood pressure and cannot work.

Lucy complains that she has had no new dresses in three years and no shoes in six months. Social workers have advised her to get a job, but apparently she does not think much of their suggestion. “Every time I go out there,” says one worker, “she’s snoozing.” No one has figured out where Tom and Lucy get money for whisky. The Welfare Department has them on a restricted budget and docs not let them handle any cash.

Tom and Lucy have two boys, fourteen and eleven years old, who are not on welfare any more because they were committed recently to a training school, at state expense, as habitual thieves. They have a fifteen-year-old daughter who had an illegitimate baby last June. The baby is now on welfare. They have a thirteenyear-old daughter who expects to add an illegitimate baby to the welfare rolls in two months.

Steps are being taken, at county expense, to initiate a paternity suit to require the father of the older girl’s baby to support the child. The thirteen-year-old girl, who will not name the father of her unborn child, has been placed in a maternity home, at county expense, to await delivery. After the child is born, she will be committed to a girls’ training school, at state expense.

Social workers are convinced that the illegitimate grandchildren of Tom and Lucy will follow the behavior pattern outlined for them and someday will add illegitimate children of their own to the welfare rolls. This is what Wayne County Juvenile Judge Nathan J. Kaufman calls a “welfare empire.” It will go on and on, probably into several generations, and it will not easily be brought under control.

PROBABLY the worst offense of the welfare clients, one that shows up particularly among the migrants, is illegitimacy. Forty-seven per cent of the 68,700 children on Aid to Dependent Children rolls in Michigan are illegitimate, and the figure is even higher in other states.

Charlotte, who came to Detroit from Tennessee, is an extreme example of the type of people responsible for this problem. A Negro woman of thirty-six, she lives in a ramshackle but tidy house in one of the factory districts on Detroit’s West Side. Living with her are her fourteen children, ten of whom, or possibly eleven, are offspring of three men she never married. There is some confusion about the number because she is not sure whether her fifth child belongs to her one legal husband or to a man she met about the time she and her husband separated in 1945.

Charlotte is a welfare client, one of the most unusual in the history of the Detroit Welfare Department. At present she holds the record for the number of children on welfare rolls. She will let almost any man live with her, and he can be sure that, so long as he chooses to stay, she will be faithful to him. This is a cardinal precept of the strange moral code by which she lives.

None of the four men responsible for Charlotte’s children contributes anything to their support, and she cannot work herself because she has to take care of the youngest members of her brood. For fourteen years the family has existed entirely on the $300 monthly welfare check, and Charlotte is prone to complain a little if her clothing allowance arrives late or she cannot get money for furniture.

So far it has cost the taxpayers between $40,000 and $50,000 to support Charlotte and her children, and before the last of them reaches maturity the bill will have increased by about $30,000.

Maude, a North Carolina farm girl who came to Detroit in 1942, has not lagged far behind Charlotte. Seven men have passed through her life in a dizzying procession, fathered nine children, and then gone their separate ways. One of the men married her but never got a divorce after he left. None of the others ever stayed around long enough for his children to get to know him.

Maude, who quit school after the sixth grade without learning to read or write, had her first child when she was only eighteen and newly arrived in Detroit. It was illegitimate. She married in 1946 and had two children in the next two years. Her husband, who had a third-grade education, was mentally defective, psychopathic, and an alcoholic. They fought constantly and separated several times.

Once, when he left her for a long stretch, Maude took in another man and had two more children. When her husband came back, the other man departed. But in 1953, the husband left again and never returned. He has served a term in a federal penitentiary since then for transporting stolen goods across a state line and now has dropped out of sight.

Maude has had four “husbands” since he left. In 1953, she started drawing Aid to Dependent Children allotments amounting to more than $200 a month, and for two years the family lived on that. But by 1955 the number of children had increased from five to seven, and ADC dropped the case. The Detroit Welfare Department took over so quickly that Maude did not miss even one monthly check. The welfare payments were less than those she had received from ADC, but they were adequate. They increased when two more children were born.

The nine children, their mother, and her various “husbands” shared a filthy four-room shack in Detroit’s lower West Side factory district. Only one bed in the house had any linens or blankets, and the two adults and the youngest child slept there. The others put on extra clothing at night during the winter months and huddled together for warmth. They went to school irregularly, ill-clothed and dirty. Frequently the older children were forced to baby-sit with the younger ones so that Maude could go out with her men friends and enjoy herself.

The Welfare Department warned her several times that she would have to change her ways or the welfare checks would stop. She promised to reform, but nothing changed. So, a few months ago, the Welfare Department stopped bluffing. It went into juvenile court and had four of the children committed to foster homes and two committed to a training school for the mentally retarded. The total cost of these commitments will exceed $9000 a year. Two of the remaining children were allowed to stay with Maude on the condition that she go to work to support them. The ninth is now old enough to support himself.

Clearly, the costs of this case now exceed by a considerable margin the amount that went to Maude in welfare payments, and the average taxpayer may fear that more solutions of this sort will cost him his shirt. But juvenile court and welfare officials believe that money will be saved in the long run by getting most of the children away from their mother. In the environment she created, the probability existed that the children would adopt her standards of behavior and someday add illegitimate children of their own to the welfare rolls. In foster homes, they have a chance to grow up as useful citizens who will not perpetuate the burden on the taxpayers started by their mother.

Some form of public support is almost inescapable for people like Maude and Charlotte, because laws requiring fathers to support their own children do not apply in their cases. Michigan laws provide that children born to a woman after she is separated from her husband are as much his children as if he were still living with her, and he is required to support them. The natural fathers get off without having to pay a penny.

One major flaw in this is that many of the legal fathers cannot be located without a long investigation at public expense, and sometimes not even then. Some public officials in Michigan are trying to have the laws changed so that the natural fathers of children will have to assume the normal legal responsibilities of parenthood. The justification for the present laws is that they give legitimacy to children who might otherwise carry a stigma with them all their lives. Some church leaders, in particular, feel it is more important to give these children a claim to legitimacy, dubious though it may seem, than to try to discourage men from fathering them.

WELFARE cheating weighs heavily on the public consciousness, causing many people to assume that the panacea for the entire welfare problem is stricter policing. But this is not a sound assumption. An independent research agency recently studied the ADC program in Detroit and concluded that no more than 10 per cent of ADC costs, and probably much less, would be saved if all cheating were eliminated. If staff’s were to be enlarged solely to catch cheaters, the agency said, the costs of hiring additional workers would exceed by a substantial margin the money saved.

Most of the cases of cheating that are uncovered are turned up by police rather than welfare caseworkers. Recently, Detroit police were called to a home on a complaint that a man was beating his daughter. When they arrived, they found the man drunk and babbling wildly. He told them that earlier in the day a $105 ADC check had arrived for support of his wife and an illegitimate grandchild. He paid bills, bought whisky, and brought the remaining $70 back to his wife. She immediately left to invest it at a gambling spot down the street, and when police arrived at three A.M. she was still there.

The home contained a combination 21-inch television and high fidelity set. The man said he did not have a job, and when police asked him why he was not looking for one, he protested indignantly that he did not have carfare.

Along Hastings Street, the heart of Detroit’s worst slum area, the first day of each month has become known as Mother’s Day in the bars and bottle stores. This is the day that ADC checks arrive in the mails, and it is the start of a week of riotous partying. It does not take much imagination to know how these women support themselves and their children after spending the ADC checks in this fashion. Detroit police say that half of the 600 to 800 prostitutes they arrest each month are ADC clients.

A few months ago, a woman filed suit in Detroit for $25,000 damages, claiming that a man killed in an automobile accident was her common-law husband. This was a revelation not only to the court but also to ADC officials who had been carrying the woman on their rolls for four years. They immediately filed suit against her to recover $5514.

One of the worst cases of moral depravity in the police files on welfare cheaters is that of Bernice, who came from Arkansas and lives in a slum just beyond the shadows of Detroit’s downtown skyscrapers.

Bernice weighs 300 pounds, and that alone has been enough to keep her from working. But she has had to support a big family, the six children she had by the husband who deserted her plus five more by the man who lived with her until he went to prison for killing his brother.

For a time, Bernice thought she had solved her support problem simply. She applied for welfare and was accepted. Then she turned her home into a flourishing business enterprise catering strictly to men. She detailed several of her boys to buy liquor with the welfare money so that she could retail it to the customers, while another son entertained them by operating a dice game. She taught the boys to roll drunks and cheat at cards. As the girls became old enough, they helped out too. They became prostitutes, charging ten dollars a customer and splitting the fees with their mother.

The children were dutiful and Bernice presided over her enterprise in comfort for several months before Detroit police intervened. She has had nothing but problems ever since, and so have the taxpayers.

Four of her children were placed in foster homes, and so far it has cost about $8000 to keep them there. They probably will remain in the homes until they are seventeen, and the final cost of their care will be about $20,000.

A fifth child, a fourteen-year-old girl, was in a foster home but recently was transferred to a maternity home to await the birth of an illegitimate child. She will not talk about how she became pregnant, so authorities are unable to try to get money from the father of her unborn child. When it is born it will be placed in a foster home, and the young mother will be sent to another foster home.

Two of Bernice’s oldest boys were in foster homes at one time, but they could not adjust to life there and were returned home on probation. So far they have not been in trouble. A nineteenyear-old girl also lives at home. She is busy caring for her two illegitimate children.

Three others of Bernice’s children pose no tax problem at present. One girl became pregnant at thirteen, but Bernice persuaded the young man responsible to marry her rather than face a statutory rape charge. A five-year-old child lives with an uncle in another state. One boy ran away from home and joined the Navy. He now provides most of the support for Bernice, her remaining children, and her illegitimate grandchildren.

The case of Bernice demonstrates that the drain on the public pocketbook does not cease when a welfare cheater is apprehended. It is more likely, as in her case, to become even larger. In almost all such cases, the children must be taken from the parents and placed in foster homes, and this involves expenses for the police, the courts, the psychiatric clinics, and other agencies and institutions. Each year the direct cost of foster-home care to Wayne County taxpayers is $2 million.

All of this, of course, is not a justification for letting cheating continue. In the long run, the costs that result from such unwholesome home situations as Bernice’s would far exceed the immediate costs of rehabilitative programs such as foster-home care. Meantime, more Charlottes, Toms and Lucys, and Bernices are marching on the cities and adding their crushing burden to the mountain of economic difficulties that seem to become less manageable every year.

What is particularly disturbing to social workers, judges, and other public officials is not simply the failure of these people to support themselves but the complete breakdown of moral values that is found in a large number of the cases. The homes of many welfare clients are nothing more than breeding grounds for crime, immorality, and severe emotional illnesses, all being subsidized with public money.