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State, Advocates Offer Different Reasons For Cash Assistance Drop

The state’s cash welfare program has sent out half as many checks to Ohio families than it did three and a half years ago. The state and advocates for low-income Ohioans have very different explanations about why. The Ohio Works First program provides a maximum of $465 a month to some of the state’s poorest people – those making just under $9,990 for a family of three. Most recipients can only get benefits for three years, and adults in the program have to be working or in job training for at least 30 hours a week. The money buys things that food stamps and other programs don’t cover. In January 2011, there were more than 235,000 Ohioans getting cash benefits through the Ohio Works First program. Now there are just under 120,000, and more than 100,000 are children living with adults who are not their parents. This dramatic drop in cash assistance caseloads could be seen as a sign the economy is strengthening. Not so, says Tara Britton, who analyzed the numbers for the left-leaning Center for Community Solutions. “And it really is happening because either people aren’t really let into the program in the first place – there sort of some roadblocks there to begin with. And folks are really having a tough time actually getting to that 30 hours a week of work," Britton says. And Britton says those people are getting kicked out, and that’s the reason for the caseload drop, not because people are finding jobs. Ben Johnson is at the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, which administers the Ohio Works First Program. Johnson says part time work can force people out because the program’s income threshold is so low, but he says only about 30 percent of those who leave the program each month have been kicked out. “Two thirds of people or more leave for other reasons: their income rose, their household makeup changed – remember, you have to have dependent children in the household in order to be eligible, they move, or for some other reason they do not recertify or sign up for the program.” And Johnson says the current state budget included $150 million in new funding for what he calls “work supports”. “Work supports cover a wide variety of services – many of them are very practical, things like gas cards, emergency car repairs, emergency rent payments, uniform costs and job search assistance.” Johnson notes that for five years, the state wasn’t meeting federal work requirements, and faced hundreds of million dollars in fines, so it needed to fix that. But Britton says that’s been corrected by simply allowing fewer people into the program, rather than increasing the number of people working. And that means the state is saving money while hurting low-income families. “Our budgeted amount is set at a certain caseload, and that caseload, we’ve been tracking its decline over the last few years. So really we end up with a significant surplus at the end of the year because the caseload isn’t as high as we budget for.” Britton has some suggestions for that surplus – she says county agencies need to take more time to do more thorough assessments to place people in jobs that match their skills, and to get help for people who have reading deficiencies or don’t have their high school diplomas, because literacy and GED classes aren’t considered part of the welfare work requirements.