DETROIT (AP) — Thousands of Michigan residents who were wrongly cut off from food assistance have received a total of $47 million under a settlement with the state, and that amount could grow.
The Department of Health and Human Services under by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder aggressively enforced a state law that stopped benefits in 2013-14 for people who were listed as fugitives wanted for crimes. But attorneys argued that there were errors in law enforcement databases, such as wrong identities and outdated information, among other problems.
After losing major decisions in two federal courts, the state settled the class-action lawsuit whereby 18,700 people would each qualify for a lump-sum food assistance payment of $3,120. By late April, 15,000 had received payments totaling $47 million, said Bob Wheaton, spokesman for the department.
The money, which comes from the federal government, is put on debit-style cards known in Michigan as Bridge cards. The cost could grow by millions if more people are found.
"The process is still ongoing," Wheaton said.
U.S. District Judge Judith Levy found many problems with how the state was canceling benefits for thousands of poor people. Besides errors in police databases, attorneys pointed out that the state was disqualifying people even if investigators weren't actively searching for them.
Myticka Brooks, of Detroit, said she was barred for more than two years. Her four children still qualified for food assistance, but she often had to rely on family for help.
"I called every court in Michigan, I think," Brooks said Thursday. "Did I have an outstanding warrant? Was I in trouble? What did I do? I still don't know."
Sheryl Wade, of Eastpointe, said she was rejected because of a bad check warrant in Detroit that was supposedly issued more than 20 years ago.
"You can't have a computer spitting people out of the system. All of us want due process," said Miriam Aukerman of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. "We tried to resolve this before litigation. The state still proceeded to go ahead."
Attorneys for the Human Services department argued that Congress gave states the authority to crack down on fugitives getting welfare and that it wasn't the agency's job to correct information in a police database. The judge and a federal appeals court weren't swayed.
"We have not heard of any other state that refused to provide clear information about the underlying reason for denying benefits," said Aukerman, who handled the lawsuit with co-counsel Jacqueline Doig.
It's not state government's only controversy related to a loss of benefits. An automated system at Michigan's unemployment agency erroneously accused thousands of people of filing false claims. Half of 28,000 cases have been reviewed again, and 44 percent have been reversed, officials said this week. The director of the agency was reassigned.
In the food aid dispute, the cost involves more than making people whole: The state has agreed to pay $911,000 in legal fees to the ACLU and the Center for Civil Justice, which won the case. Wheaton said the department hasn't determined the separate staff cost of complying with court orders.
"Food assistance is an incredible driver of economic growth," Aukerman said. "This is money that would have come to Michigan. It's just coming late."
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