Posted: 11:00 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012

Welfare costs fall 20 percent across Ohio


DDN welfare photo
The Hills, Roy and Terry of 24 South Findlay St. Dayton are disabled and have been living off of the Ohio Works First (welfare) program for the past three years but have just exhausted their benefits. (Although life is very difficult for them now, the home is decorated for Halloween, and the play of words in the background seemed appropriate for their situation). Staff photo by Jim Witmer
Welfare reduction efforts span counties photo
Gerald Fullam

By Josh Sweigart

Staff Writer

Tens of thousands of Ohioans have left the welfare rolls this year, saving taxpayers millions of dollars each month and putting enrollment at its lowest point since the benefit for the poor was reformed in the 1990s.

A Dayton Daily News analysis found that area counties are mirroring this trend. In Montgomery County, enrollment has plummeted from August 2011 when 13,809 people were on the program at a cost of $2.4 million to July 2012 when 8,334 people received a combined $1.6 million.

Greene County’s numbers have dropped by more than 30 percent to 904 people in the program in July costing $173,954.

The size of the welfare program in Ohio peaked in June 2010 at $47 million when 105,098 households received an extra $100 check with help from the federal stimulus program. There were 73,451 households in the program statewide in July 2012.

In the past 12 months — from July 2011 to July 2012 — the number of Ohio households receiving welfare and cash paid out dropped by 20 percent.

But that drop does not necessarily reflect an improving economy.

The largest single reason people left the welfare rolls – accounting for 36 percent of the decline in February – is because officials are taking a harder stance on requiring people to perform work activities as required under law. This can include work, community service or job training for at least 30 hours a week.

The work requirement became an election-year issue when Republicans accused President Barack Obama of “dropping the work requirements.” Officials in Ohio have not experienced this.

“The work requirement in Ohio is laid out both in federal law and in state law and those have not changed,” said Ohio Department of Job and Family Services Spokesman Ben Johnson. “The only difference is Ohio is actually doing it.”

“We’ve been very diligent in making sure folks work 30 hours a week for these benefits,” said Montgomery County Job and Family Services Assistant Director Heath MacAlpine. “What we’re trying to help them do is focus on that career development so they can find a job and better resources for their families.”

The state is under the gun to get at least half of all able-bodied adults receiving assistance into a work activity or it could face $135 million in penalties from the federal government. The state met that requirement for the first time in July.

To reach the goal for this fiscal year, the state spent $7 million giving extra food stamp benefits to people who didn’t apply for welfare but qualify for welfare and have jobs. Next year they hope to meet the mark without this aid.

‘I may as well get a job’

Some worry about an eroding safety net. Eugene King, director of the Ohio Poverty Law Center, said counties are taking the easy route instead of helping people find jobs.

“I would prefer that we increase the number of people who are in the program and working rather than meeting it by reducing the total number of recipients,” he said. “Recipients are not going off (the rolls) to high-income employment.”

Joel Potts, director of the Ohio Job and Family Services Directors Association, said this effort helps counties focus on the truly needy.

“The (50 percent) who are getting work and training are better off than the ones who are not,” he said. “We need to find a way to support work instead of supporting dependency.”

For this to work, though, he said resources may need to be put into work programs for people who have felony convictions, mental health problems, no diploma or no transportation.

Educational attainment such as finishing a high school diploma does not count toward the work requirement.

An internal survey of caseworkers in Clark, Greene and Hamilton counties found the No. 1 reason people drop out of the program is that they don’t want to fulfill the work requirement.

Many realized they could make more money working a minimum wage job for fewer hours than they could working for cash assistance through the program. “I may as well get a job,” numerous caseworkers were told.

Other reasons were that people couldn’t wait for the money, didn’t want child support taken out, or felt they couldn’t work.

‘It took me out at my legs’

Officials are hoping for the tail wind of an improving economy, which they credit as the second biggest reason welfare rolls are down.

Another 12 percent of the people who left the program reached the limit of 36 months — the maximum period someone can collect cash benefits.

Roy Hill of Dayton knows all too well what it’s like to have that check cut off. He is exempt from the work requirement for health reasons, but simply exhausted his benefits.

“It took me out at my legs is what it’s done,” said the 46-year-old.

Hill, his wife, Terry, and their six children – ages 6 to 16 – moved here from Kentucky in 2007. In 2008 he had a bicycle accident that required surgery on his shoulder. He later developed breathing problems. She developed a genetic spine disorder in 2009. Both have documents from their doctors saying they are not employable.

“I’ve done construction, I’ve worked in restaurants, I’ve done farm work, I’ve done everything, but it’s all been heavy lifting, things like that,” he said.

In 2009 the Hills were granted cash assistance. Their last check came on Aug. 1. Roy doesn’t get a court date for his Social Security disability claim until November.

They applied for an extension from the county and were denied.

“I told her if you could fix my back and my neck you best believe I’d be in a factory somewhere in Dayton working, cause I got six kids to take care of,” Terry said.

They still get food stamps. Area churches have helped. And they’ve had to borrow money to pay their son’s school fees and bus fare so he can get to school. But the only cash they have coming in is $40 in child support Terry receives for her oldest son. Utility shutoff notices have started trickling in.

The state’s welfare program, called Ohio Works First, is funded 80 percent by the federal government and 20 percent by the state. Eligibility is based on income and family size. A family of three would have to have income of less than $773 a month to qualify and could receive $450 a month.

Though no one knows what happens to people who are sanctioned or turned down for benefits, King said he can guess.

“What I think happens more often is they figure out how to further reduce their living expenses, they double up with family or friends, they become less stable,” he said. “We know that domestic violence and quality of life and healthcare decline with poverty. Some families will break up because they’re not able to stay together.”