It is difficult to feel sorry for Amanda Clayton.
The young Michigan mother was sentenced to probation this week in a Wayne County circuit courtroom for welfare fraud, after taking $5,475 in food and medical assistance payments despite winning a $1 million Michigan lottery jackpot last September.
Clayton, 25, was ordered to serve nine months of probation, plus pay court costs and fines. She will not be able to apply for state assistance for one year and had to pay back the amount taken in a lump sum. The judge also told her to get a job.
Clayton’s lawyer, John Dakmak, told the Detroit Free Press that she repaid the money Tuesday morning. Dakmak said Clayton is looking for a job, but will likely have trouble because of her felony conviction.
“It’s Michigan in 2012. It’s difficult to find a job. A felony conviction is a very serious matter,” he said, declining to let Clayton speak for herself after the sentencing hearing.
Yes, breaking the law is indeed a serious matter. Trying to cheat your way to get cash in your hands is a serious matter. Taking money that could go to someone in more need, more deserving — also a serious matter.
State officials are applauding the court’s decision saying they’re pleased with the outcome, noting that welfare fraud cases don’t always lead to convictions.
“This is not a light sentence,” said Joy Yearout, of the Michigan Attorney General’s Office. “She’s being held accountable.”
Clayton first came to the attention of authorities when a local news outlet revealed she was still taking welfare payments even after winning several hundred thousand dollars, after taxes, in September from the state lottery game.
At the time she said she felt “entitled” to the payments because she needed the help. But the Michigan Department of Human Services requires that income changes be reported within 10 days. Clayton, who was on food assistance from 2010 to 2012, apparently never did so — even after she got a job for four months in 2011.
Clayton’s actions are a distasteful kind of selfishness. When you cheat the system, your scheming, lying or omissions hurt real people.
Days before her arrest in April, Michigan’s governor signed into law legislation requiring lottery officials to report winnings to the Department of Human Services. A common sense law, yes, but pitiful we need it.
Clayton’s abuse of a system designed to be a safety net for millions in dire straits comes on the heels of news about a growing number of states blocking welfare recipients from spending their benefits on booze, cigarettes, lottery tickets, casino gambling, tattoos and strippers.
“If you’re not abusing the program, then you should really have no problem with these reforms,” said state Rep. Shaunna O’Connell, a Republican pushing for restrictions in Massachusetts, in an Associated Press story last week.
While the crackdown is popular in both Democratic and Republican states in this era of tight budgets and demands for fiscal discipline, says AP, advocates for the poor argue that the restrictions are based on stereotypes about people on welfare, and they say the notion of any widespread abuse is a myth.
Most people on public assistance, they contend, are single mothers struggling just to get by.
Like Amanda Clayton?