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Thousands locally lose food stamps benefit

Nearly 50 percent of Clark County recipients did not meet work rules.

Nearly half of Clark County’s low-income residents receiving food stamps will lose the benefit for a month after failing to meet federal work requirements.

The 5,035 able-bodied adults here who receive aid are required to spend at least 20 hours a week working, training for a job or volunteering, but more than 48 percent did not meet the requirements, according to the Clark County Department of Job and Family Services.

“We’re not taking away benefits from children. If the parents lose their food subsidies, the children will still get their food assistance,” said Lehan Peters, deputy director of WorkPlus of Clark County, which provides training and other resources for local employees.

Peters said officials met with 44 representatives of area food pantries and advised them that the sanctions could result in an influx of clients seeking food assistance.

The federal work requirement had been in place since 1996, but Ohio had been exempt for six years because of the economic downtown.

“It’s not something that is difficult. It’s about choices,” Peters said.

The requirement was reinstated in Ohio in October, but the risk of losing benefits didn’t begin until Jan. 1 for most Ohioans. Sixteen counties were exempt from the rule because of high unemployment.

Statewide, more than 10,000 low income Ohio’s lost food stamp benefits in January. That’s 7 percent of those who were required to meet the mandate.

Human services officials and advocates for the poor expect the number to increase sharply this month and in later months.

“This is just the start,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks and a critic of the requirement.

County caseworkers, particularly in urban areas with larger caseloads, have not completed required assessments of food-stamp recipients to determine if they must comply with the new rules or should be exempt because of mental illness, substance abuse or other issues.

In addition, thousands have failed to respond to letters asking them to come to their county Job and Family Services office for an assessment. They are likely to be booted from the rolls in February.

“The overwhelming majority (of food-stamp recipients) — 75 percent in some counties — didn’t respond to the request for an assessment,” said Joel Potts, executive director of the Ohio Job and Family Services Directors’ Association. “Of those who are showing up, about half are being exempted.”

About 1.8 million Ohioans receive food stamps, with the average individual benefit about $132 a month. One in five recipients has no cash income, according to a recent federal analysis.

Peters said Clark County officials sent letters to 5,035 of the 12,000 residents the agency serves, inviting them to attend orientation session where they were help them meet work requirements.

But currently the “show rate” has been about 22.4 percent from those who are eligible to attend the orientation sessions each week.

She said those sanctioned either failed to respond to the letter or failed complete their work assignments given to them at orientation or returned their assignments in late.

Peters said those sanctioned will lose their benefits for 30 days and will have an opportunity to reapply.

But they must comply with the mandated work requirements.

Peters said some food stamp recipients who are not exempt from the requirements face challenges and are harder to place than others, such as those who are felons, homeless or mentally ill.

Still, Peters said, officials are finding employment for those who comply with the rules.

“We are serious about placing them. We are finding them job,” Peters said. “We’re not this mean agency trying to pull things away from people.”

The Columbus Dispatch contributed to this story.

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