The Woman Who Lost Welfare For Failing To Work While In A Coma

“We must treat each man on his worth and merits as a man. We must see that each is given a square deal, because he is entitled to no more and should receive no less.” —Theodore Roosevelt

In A Nutshell

Unable to do manual labor at a Columbus, Ohio, warehouse after her hysterectomy, Kimberly Thompson, 43, went on welfare to support herself and her 15-year-old daughter while completing a retraining program for computer repair. When Kimberly’s organs shut down from an untreated infection, she was placed in a medically induced coma for a month. The administrators of Ohio’s welfare program terminated her food stamps and cash benefits for failing to attend retraining while in a coma. Advocates for the poor say that US welfare programs are meeting federal goals by using work requirements to throw needy people off welfare or prevent them from collecting benefits in the first place.

The Whole Bushel

Growing up in poverty can have profound effects on children that continue into adulthood. A recent study of 1,100 young people showed that the cerebral cortex—the part of the brain responsible for language, reasoning, memory, and spatial skills—is 6 percent smaller than normal in children from poor families. These kids also received lower scores on a variety of cognitive tests. “We’ve known for so long that poverty and lack of access to resources to enrich the developmental environment are related to poor school performance, poor test scores and fewer educational opportunities,” said researcher Elizabeth Sowell. “But now we can really tie it to a physical thing in the brain. We realized that this is a big deal.”

Other research has shown that people raised in poverty feel less control than others when faced with uncertainty over employment or investments. As a result, these people are believed to be more impulsive and quicker to abandon demanding tasks. For example, researchers found that people from poorer backgrounds would take a smaller amount of money if they could get it quickly rather than wait for a larger reward later.

Perhaps that’s because they’ve heard of cases like that of 43-year-old Kimberly Thompson. Unable to do manual labor at a Columbus, Ohio, warehouse after her hysterectomy, Thompson went on welfare to support herself and her 15-year-old daughter while completing a retraining program for computer repair. When Kimberly’s organs shut down from an untreated infection, she was placed in a medically induced coma for a month. Doctors amputated seven of her toes, and her cognitive ability was somewhat impaired.

Even so, the administrators of Ohio’s welfare program terminated her food stamps and cash benefits for failing to attend retraining classes and complete this mandatory requirement for assistance. “They basically cut me off of benefits for not reporting I was in a coma,” Thompson says. Without any income for the three months she needed to recover, she had to sleep on the couches of various relatives. Her daughter also had to move in with her father temporarily.

This harsh treatment by Ohio’s assistance program is believed to stem from federal laws to reform welfare. According to law, at least half of single parents receiving assistance in any state must be working or receiving an education to get a job. Any state that fails to meet that requirement will be fined. In 2011, Ohio was in violation of those laws and faced a $1.3 million fine.

“We were under immense federal pressure,” said Joel Potts, who heads the County Directors of Job and Family Services association. “Counties were threatened with losing millions of dollars if they did not act to bring up the work participation rate.” In just four years, Ohio met the requirement. But a 2013 study showed that the state reached their goal mostly by kicking people off welfare, not by getting more people back to work or enrolled in education programs. In some cases, welfare programs simply prevent needy people from collecting benefits in the first place.

Thompson has finally received several months of back food stamp and welfare benefits. However, she may not receive future welfare payments because her daughter no longer lives with her.

Show Me The Proof

NBC News: Ohio Woman Kicked Off Welfare for Not Reporting She Was In a Coma
Bankrate: Growing up poor hurts sense of control
Washington Post: New brain science shows poor kids have smaller brains than affluent kids