Capital News: Ohio Statehouse debate continues on food stamp waiver

by MARC KOVAC | CAPITAL BUREAU CHIEF Published:

Columbus -- Should the state require out-of-work residents to take job training, volunteer at nonprofits or find gainful employment to receive food stamps?

Or are there too few decent-paying jobs and state-backed opportunities for advancement in the present economic environment to enable the down-and-out to meet such requirements?

That's the debate going on at the Statehouse and beyond, as Gov. John Kasich and his administration stands in firm opposition to waiving work requirements for welfare recipients and Democratic lawmakers and advocates for the needy stand equally unmoved in their efforts to feed the hungry.

The situation traces its roots to the mid-1990s, with the enactment of welfare reform under then-President Bill Clinton. Among other rules, able-bodied adults without dependents were required to find a job, attend career training or complete other tasks at least 20 hours a week in order to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits for more than three months over any given three-year period.

(SNAP provides some 1.8 million Ohioans with an average of $132 a month in food stamps.)

The work requirements were waived during the so-called "Great Recession," when unemployment rates in Ohio were 10 percent-plus.

Those rates have since come down, though they've been on the rise in recent months, reaching 7.5 percent last month, the highest rate since early 2012.

States can continue to apply for the waiver, and Ohio has done so for more than a dozen of its hardest-hit counties. But the Kasich administration is not budging in its decision to reinstate the work requirements for most of the state as of Jan. 1.

"The waiver is meant for when the economy is bottoming out," said Rob Nichols, Kasich's spokesman. "That's no longer the case. Things are improving, people are going back to work."

Ben Johnson, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, said Ohioans can meet the work requirement by finding a job, attending job training, participating in a qualified job search or doing volunteer work.

The state also has provided an additional $8.2 million to help county offices working with the unemployed and residents who need new uniforms, bus tokens or gas cards.

But advocates for the needy say that isn't enough to ensure the needy can feed their families.

They say there aren't enough job openings for people looking for work, there aren't enough caseworkers to assist those who are trying to meet the work requirements and there aren't enough state-backed training programs for all of the Ohioans who would need to participate.

"Federal officials understand that forcing the requirement doesn't makes sense during a period of high unemployment in Ohio when there are three job seekers for every single job opening," state Sen. Eric Kearney (D-Cincinnati), the minority leader in the chamber and candidate for lieutenant governor, wrote in a recent letter to Kasich.

Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Food Banks, added, "The cold-hard reality of hunger is about to get a whole lot worse beginning in January for over 134,000 unemployed, non-disabled childless adults living in 72 counties who will lose their food stamp benefits unless they are able to meet the work requirements … Hunger has never been higher in Ohio as it is now, and unemployment continues to be a statewide challenge."

Hamler-Fugitt said her group has been meeting with the Kasich administration for months on the issue, to no avail.

"… I begged them to reconsider this decision," she said. "We also presented a number of proposals that could be taken into account to phase this in a thoughtful and appropriate manner, including accepting the waiver through Sept. 30, 2014, beginning a pilot program and a complete and thorough evaluation about the barriers this population has to employment."

But state officials counter that the waiver decision will affect only working-age adults without children who are physically and mentally fit. Children, parents with dependent children, the elderly and the disabled are exempt, Johnson said.

Nichols said a state-backed website currently has upward of 129,000 jobs openings listed. For those residents not able to find work, there are plenty of other options for meeting the federal requirement for continued food assistance, he said.

"This idea that we're cutting anyone is not accurate," Nichols said. "If you do the work requirements, no one gets cut."

Marc Kovac is the Dix Capital Bureau Chief. Email him at mkovac@dixcom.com or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.

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