Ohio’s welfare rolls continue plunging to historic lows, stemming in part from the inability of some program applicants and benefit recipients to comply with work-activity requirements.
The state two years ago cracked down on the cash assistance program — called Ohio Works First — because it faced more than $130 million in penalties if more than half of welfare cash recipients were not employed or engaged in eligible work activities.
County agencies statewide made compliance a priority and started requiring applicants who seek benefits first to partake in work-training classes or job-search activities before being admitted into the program. If admitted, program participants are required to complete 30 or more hours of job training or work activities each week.
Improvements in the economy — including Ohio’s lowest jobless rate since April 2007 — as well as the work requirements, have contributed to the declines, said Benjamin Johnson, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, which administers the program. He added that many welfare-eligible Ohioans often decide they can earn more money by finding a job than they would in benefits.
For example, in Montgomery County, the average monthly benefit for individual recipients is $320.
“On the front end, people may see better opportunities than the benefit the Ohio Works First program offers,” Johnson said.
But critics claim the intense focus on work participation rates has resulted in needy and destitute families being denied benefits or kicked off the rolls for failing to meet unreasonable work obligations.
“The work participation percentage is up because there are a lot fewer people getting benefits at all,” said Michael Smalz, senior attorney for the Ohio Poverty Law Center.
In June, about 61,676 households in Ohio received cash assistance, which was the lowest monthly total since the passage of welfare reform in 1996, according to state data.
Last month, about 3,579 households in Montgomery County received cash benefits, which was an 18-year low.
Champaign, Clark and Greene counties have seen household participation in the program plummet. The number of households receiving benefits has held steady in Butler and Warren counties.
Ohioans are eligible for welfare cash benefits only if they live with a dependent child. Federal law says at least half of welfare cash recipients must be working or engaged in work-training programs.
The state consistently failed to meet the federal work requirement, beginning in 2007. But in 2012, Ohio had to comply or pay hefty fines.
County Departments of Job and Family Services adopted new rules requiring applicants for benefits to participate in job-training or work-search activities before their applications are approved or denied.
In Montgomery County, applicants must first complete two weeks of work-search and job-readiness classes.
Many applicants fail to complete the classes and are denied benefits, local officials said.
Some people who complete the activities are later sanctioned for failing to meet their weekly work obligations, often leading to the suspension of their benefits.
County agencies consistently cited the new requirements on applicants for increasing work participation rates, according to a 2013 report prepared for the state by Public Consulting Group.
Work participation rates increased as the number of people in the program subject to the work requirements decreased, the report found.
Some residents withdrew their applications after learning they must search for work prior to receiving cash assistance, the report states.
Others were shown how the amount of the compensation spread over 30 or more hours per week meant the pay was far below minimum wage.
But mostly, applicants were denied entry into the program because they never engaged in the prerequisite work activities or failed to complete them, the report said.
Since January 2011, the number of benefit recipients subject to work requirements has declined by more than 70 percent in Montgomery County and statewide, according to agency data.
Today, the overwhelming majority of benefit recipients are children who live with relatives other than their biological parents.
Relatives in these situations do not have to comply the work rules, and they do not count against work participation rates.
The work requirements are federal law, and it is imperative the state helps benefit recipients become self-reliant because they can only remain in the program for three years, except in child-only cases, Johnson said.
“It is crucial we also provide job training and work experience and the type of assistance that allows someone to develop a resume, make connections and find a job,” Johnson said.
But residents with little or no cash cannot be expected to attend work activities or job training for 30 hours each week, considering the meager level of benefits they receive, said Jack French, director of the Athens County Department of Job and Family Services, who has been a vocal critic of the policies.
Ohio Works First is the only source of direct cash assistance to poor people who are not completely disabled, but the work requirements make the compensation not worth the commitment, he said.
Transportation to work activities is a challenge and can be expensive for recipients, he said.
The work participation push comes at the expense of needy parents who may have significant barriers to employment, such as mental health issues, physical limitations, developmental disabilities and substance abuse, French said.
“We no longer were concerned about whether we were meeting people’s basic needs, and we in no way, shape or form measured that anymore,” he said.
County agencies are denying benefits or removing from the rolls Ohioans with significant issues who are incapable of completing their work or training assignments, said Smalz, with the Ohio Poverty Law Center.
Some counties assign applicants to work activities before they will accept an application, he said.
Many assign applicants to work activities without doing an adequate assessment of their skills, mental or physical disabilities or other employment barriers, he said.
This means they are being denied entry into the program when they could comply with the requirements if they were connected with the right training, education, counseling or medical treatment, he said.
Applicants in Montgomery County are assessed for employment barriers at the start of the application process, and work assignments can be adjusted when need be, said John O’Pry, manager with the Montgomery County Department of Job and Family Services.
He said county agencies work with applicants and provide transportation to work activities by distributing bus passes or tokens, he said.
“As far as the customers, if they go along with the program and do what they need to do, they can remain on cash assistance,” he said.