Austerity in Ohio: State's Most Vulnerable—including 40,000 Children—To Be Kicked Off Poverty Assistance

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The Nation

Austerity in Ohio: State's Most Vulnerable—including 40,000 Children—To Be Kicked Off Poverty Assistance

by
Greg Kauffman

(Image: The Toledo Blade)

Since January 2011, Ohio has thrown nearly 70,000 people—including 40,000 children—off of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance program, called Ohio Works First (OWF). That’s nearly 25 percent of the state’s TANF caseload. The reason? The state faces up to $130 million in federal penalties if 50 percent of the adults receiving assistance don’t meet the federal work participation requirement by September 30. 

“Seventy thousand people is more than the entire TANF roll in thirty-nine states,” says Jack Frech, director of the Athens County Department of Job and Family Services in Appalachian Ohio, where he has worked with poor people for over thirty years. “You can imagine if someone announced they were going to throw all the children in Virginia off of cash assistance it would be national news. But that many get thrown off in Ohio and it’s barely even local news.”

Like Ohio, four other states face similar penalties for achieving low work participation rates among TANF-recipients in 2007. Advocates assert that forcing states to maintain those rates during a recession runs counter to the program’s goal of providing basic assistance to children in poverty. 

Last year Ohio applied for relief from its penalty. But according to Liz Schott, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), the state’s circumstances didn’t meet the “limited bases for relief” under federal statute, so the Obama administration denied its request.

“Ohio’s response has been to reduce the rolls as quickly as possible, by any means possible,” says Frech, adding that the people who are now getting kicked off of the program are the very people who have the greatest barriers to work. A recent report from the Urban Institute identifies many of those barriers, including: mental and physical health challenges; lack of a high school diploma; caring for a child with special needs or another family member with a disability; and living with domestic violence. The authors conclude that the “one-size-fits all work approach” doesn’t work for parents who face significant barriers to employment.

“The punishment is just brutal,” says Frech. “And essentially what we are doing is sanctioning the poorest, most vulnerable families in the state by [more than] $120 million a year to avoid the $130 million penalty.”

“More than 50 percent of OWF recipients went to work in prior years and some managed to get off the rolls,” says Frech. “Many of the people who are left now are the folks who have the greatest barriers. So now we start over and say—okay, now 50 percent of the remaining people still have to work. That’s unfair on the face of it. The logical question we should be asking is this: should we be denying families with children any cash whatsoever to live on—just because we’re not able to get their parents to go to a thirty-hour work assignment somewhere?”

Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks in Columbus, has worked on poverty-related issues for twenty-five years. She agrees with Frech, adding, “Welfare policy has been completely disconnected from the realities that states and communities and families are facing every day.”

Indeed, when families are cut off from TANF cash assistance, many are left to survive on food stamps (SNAP) alone, with no other cash income. In fact, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that in 2010 nearly 20 percent of SNAP households fit that description.   

“And Ohio is busy adding to that total by throwing tens of thousands of families off OWF every year,” says Frech.

Ohio is hardly alone in this post-welfare reform phenomenon in which families are left to fend for themselves. The welfare reform law in 1996 created the TANF block grant, replacing Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which had guaranteed cash assistance to eligible families since 1935. States were given wide discretion to determine eligibility, benefit levels, and time limits, and the block grant was also frozen at the 1996 level without being indexed to inflation; so the scarce dollars that families do get don’t stretch as far as they did in 1996.

Prior to welfare reform, for every 100 families living in poverty, there were sixty-eight families receiving cash assistance through AFDC. By 2010, just twenty-seven received cash assistance for every 100 families in poverty. A majority of states now provide benefits at less than 30 percent of the poverty line (about $5,200 annually for a family of three), and benefits are below half the poverty line in every state. In Ohio, the maximum benefit for a family of three is about $450 per month.

In his new book So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America, Georgetown University Law Center Professor Peter Edelman notes that the difficulty in obtaining cash assistance along with the proliferation of low-wage work has led to a dramatic rise in the number of people living in “deep poverty”—below half the poverty line (less than $8,700 annually for a family of three). That number skyrocketed from 12.6 million people in 2000 to 20.5 million people in 2010, an increase of over 60 percent. 

Prior to welfare reform, for every 100 families living in poverty, there were sixty-eight families receiving cash assistance through AFDC. By 2010, just twenty-seven received cash assistance for every 100 families in poverty.

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Frech says Ohio’s caseload reduction has resulted in the state distributing $10 million less per month in cash assistance. Additionally, when a person is thrown off cash assistance due to a sanction—like a missed work assignment—he or she can be removed from the food stamp program as well. The state also has the option to throw the individual off of Medicaid. So a single mother with two kids, for example, suddenly finds herself with no cash assistance, one-third less food stamps, and no Medicaid.

“The punishment is just brutal,” says Frech. “And essentially what we are doing is sanctioning the poorest, most vulnerable families in the state by [more than] $120 million a year to avoid the $130 million penalty.”

Schott says that Ohio likely could reach its work participation rate target largely through its new Ohio Works Now (OWN) program, which pays employed low-income families that receive SNAP a $10 per month TANF benefit, and in that way raising the percentage of TANF-recipients who are working. Oregon is in a similar position to Ohio, and has relied heavily on its version of an OWN-like program in order to raise the state’s work participation rate. This approach has allowed Oregon to avoid aggressive sanctioning and also the burdensome application process that keeps many Ohioans from even getting through the “front door” of the cash assistance program in the first place. 

“The fact is the work participation rate [rule] is so broken it interferes with states’ efforts to connect families to work, and it drives states to use harsh policies to not serve families, by keeping people off or kicking them off,” says Schott.

But Frech says he has been a lonely voice in protesting Ohio’s aggressive approach to throwing people off of the rolls. He says the County Welfare Directors Association “is wholeheartedly embracing and supporting this,” and the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services “is basically taking the position that these folks are just lazy, they don’t want to work, and we have no choice but to sanction them off—they are choosing to sanction themselves off by not showing up for work. Never mind that 78 percent of OWF participants don’t even own a vehicle—who can afford a car if you’re living off $400 a month?—and travel allowances average just $25 to $50 per month. Pretty tough to get to the 30 hours per week work assignment—especially for people in rural areas like Athens County.”

Frech also says there is way too much silence from people in Ohio advocacy groups whom he has considered friends and allies for decades.

“They’re all scared to death of the Governor,” he says. “They’ve all basically been told if the state has to pay this $130 million penalty it’s going to come out of your budgets.”

Hamler-Fugitt has a different take.

“We’ve been consumed with fighting off legislative efforts to drug test cash assistance applicants and a total war on all fronts on SNAP benefits,” she says. “We may not be blasting [politicians] in the media, but we’re attempting to have meaningful conversations and bring folks to understand the broader issue.” 

She is hopeful that Governor John Kasich is hearing the advocacy community and that he will “carry our message back to Congress and the Obama Administration.”

“We’ve got to sit down and negotiate a better deal on welfare,” she says. “We’ve got to index the block grant to keep pace with inflation, fix these work participation rates, and put a moratorium on these penalties. The biggest increases in demand for emergency food we are now seeing is coming from what could formerly be described as solidly middle-income or upper-income communities. And when poverty hits the ’burbs like this, you know we got serious problems in this country.”

So far, the Obama administration has remained silent on the Ohio approach to caseload reductions—an approach similar to that taken by many states across the nation.

“There is no acknowledgment from the Administration that this policy leads to children living on food stamps with no cash income whatsoever,” says Frech. “It goes unacknowledged because no one likes to point the finger at Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich and John Kasich—and everyone else who keeps saying welfare reform worked—and say honestly, ‘Your welfare reform plan stinks. It doesn’t work. It increases deep poverty and hardship for children.’ Whom do you report child neglect to when the greatest perpetrator is the state?”

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