Those Who Work With Welfare Recipients Talk Work, Fines And Reform

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The Ohio Statehouse(Photo: Flickr)
The Ohio Statehouse(Photo: Flickr)

Ohio’s welfare rolls dropped by nearly a fifth in the last year. And part of that is because the state is cracking down on recipients of cash assistance who aren’t working as required – and yanking their benefits. Four key leaders on the front lines talk about how this aspect of welfare reform is working – or isn’t.

Nearly 84,000 Ohioans are receiving cash assistance from the state, down from 102,000 last year. Almost 36 percent of those who lost their cash assistance benefits in the last year didn’t meet a federal requirement that recipients work or participate in job training programs for about 30 hours a week for single parent families and 55 hours a week for two-parent households.

For many years, Ohio didn’t meet that federal standard. And last year, the state got slapped with the largest fines in the nation – $130 million of which could come due to the feds this fall. Michael Colbert directs the state Job and Family Services Department. He says Ohio must avoid those federal fines, but that recipients must also work toward getting off public assistance.

“What you don’t want is a population that is going to be on public assistance for a year or six months or three months and not do anything. You want to pick up a skill. If we sanction you now, it is a personal decision. You have made a personal decision that you do not want to do 32 hours of work participation,” Colbert said.

That idea – that it’s a personal decision that recipients make not to work – angers Jack Frech. He heads the Job and Family Services agency in Athens County, one of the poorest in Ohio.

“We have folks in Columbus talking about realism for these folks and how they realistically need to go out and find a job. No one knows it more than they do. These folks love their children. They want to provide a better living for them. It’s as though we accept no responsibility for the fact that we set the benefit level at $450 a month,” Frech said.

Frech maintains that benefit is so low many people his office sees can’t afford a car to get to a job – and that the state needs to go back to what it did in previous years and send more money their way.

Colbert says while cash assistance is the only real money the state puts into recipients’ hands, they also can get help with food, housing, transportation and health care. But the reality for Joel Potts with the Job and Family Services Directors Association is that the law is the law, and that the agencies have little leeway in making exceptions for recipients who aren’t working.

“If they are assigned to work, they have three choices: they can do the assignment, they can ask to have their case closed, or we will have to move forward with sanctions. There’s no fourth option. Those are the three things. In that, it is a choice,” Potts said.

Phil Cole is with the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies – a group of 50 offices which aren’t state agencies but work with people in poverty. He says recipients are at the mercy of a system that he says doesn’t work anymore.

“They’re given up. And that’s not the fault of the director, it’s not the fault of the state of Ohio, it’s not the fault of any of Joel’s members. It’s just the way the rules are set up. And the rules are wrong – we need to redo them. People shouldn’t have to make this choice of surviving or not surviving, which is really what it is. And when you’re surviving, you’re barely surviving,” Cole said.

Cole suggests the three-year time limit to receive welfare benefits needs to be expanded to five years instead of three, because new projects and businesses that will bring new jobs often take years to develop. There are exceptions to that limit for some families, but it’s unlikely it will be expanded in the near future.