The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

November 26, 2013

Welfare rolls increase for first time since crack down

By Catherine Candisky
Columbus Dispatch

— Welfare rolls increased last month for the first time since the state began cracking down on job and work-training requirements.

Caseloads inched up to 130,349 in October, an increase of 880 people from September, and ending 20 consecutive months of decline in which the number of Ohioans receiving a monthly assistance check sunk to the lowest level in at least five decades.

More than 100,000 have left the tax-funded safety-net program since January 2011, as the rolls plunged 45 percent.

Many left or were kicked off as the state cracked down on federal requirements that most adult recipients spend 30 hours a week working, going to school or training for a job, or actively seeking employment.

“It’s a true temporary-assistance program now. As the counties enforced the work requirements, you saw declining caseloads. We went for years without pushing the work requirement, and now we’re enforcing it,” said Joel Potts, executive director of the Ohio Job and Family Services Directors’ Association.

He thinks Ohio Works First caseloads might have bottomed out; advocates for the poor are not so sure.

Gene King, director of the Ohio Poverty Law Center, said county caseworkers have had to turn their attention to food-stamp caseloads and a new work requirement of at least 20 hours a week, or job training, for able-bodied adults. Those failing to comply will lose food stamps starting in January.

“Some people may not have been terminated (from cash assistance) because counties have a deadline (for food-stamp work requirements) by the end of the year. They may have been paying more attention to that,” King said.

State officials say they can’t predict future welfare caseloads, but they note that in addition to enforcement of work requirements, an improving economy might have helped lower caseloads in recent months.

“We began to enforce the work requirement and the economy began to improve. Often, when the work requirement is mentioned (to someone seeking assistance), the person realizes they can go find a job” on their own, said Benjamin Johnson, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

State officials say about one third of those leaving the rolls were removed for failing to meet work requirements; the rest left for other reasons. Some increased their incomes and no longer qualified, others left on their own because they no longer wanted help or didn’t want to comply with the requirements, and some exhausted the maximum three years of assistance.

Gov. John Kasich’s administration began stricter enforcement of the of the work requirements to avoid $135 million in federal penalties. Although they are still awaiting official word from federal regulators, the crackdown appears to have worked, pushing the state’s “work-participation” rate to 57 percent last month, up from 25 percent in December 2011 when efforts began to meet the 50-percent benchmark.

Critics, such as Jack Frech, director of the Athens County Department of Job and Family Services, say welfare rolls were slashed but few got much help getting back on their feet. Cuts in state aid for work-support programs in recent years left county caseworkers with few resources to offer the poor beyond a monthly check.

“Overall, far fewer people are completing work assignments than when the crackdown started,” he said.

In September, 9,364 were working or involved in some work-related program. While that’s 57 percent of those required to do so, it’s still 2,779 fewer than in January 2011.

In response to concerns that welfare recipients were not getting enough help, the new two-year state budget included $150 million for gas cards, emergency car repairs, rent payments and additional funding for job-placement services, Johnson said.

The money is desperately needed, Potts said, adding that those remaining on the rolls face the most obstacles to self-sufficiency.

“We’re left with those who are the hardest to serve. We’re engaging almost all of our population in some kind of work activity but only 57 percent are meeting the federal requirement,” he said.

“The money will allow us to restore relationships with our community partners like Goodwill which offers more hands-on involvement with clients.”