Since January 2011, Ohio has thrown nearly 70,000 people—including 40,000 children—off of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance program, called Ohio Works First (OWF). That’s nearly 25 percent of the state’s TANF caseload. The reason? The state faces up to $130 million in federal penalties if 50 percent of the adults receiving assistance don’t meet the federal work participation requirement by September 30.
“Seventy thousand people is more than the entire TANF roll in thirty-nine states,” says Jack Frech, director of the Athens County Department of Job and Family Services in Appalachian Ohio, where he has worked with poor people for over thirty years. “You can imagine if someone announced they were going to throw all the children in Virginia off of cash assistance it would be national news. But that many get thrown off in Ohio and it’s barely even local news.”
Like Ohio, four other states face similar penalties for achieving low work-participation rates among TANF recipients in 2007. Advocates assert that forcing states to maintain those rates during a recession runs counter to the program’s goal of providing basic assistance to children in poverty.
Last year Ohio applied for relief from its penalty. But according to Liz Schott, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), the state’s circumstances didn’t meet the “limited bases for relief” under federal statute, so the Obama administration denied its request.
“Ohio’s response has been to reduce the rolls as quickly as possible, by any means possible,” says Frech, adding that the people who are now getting kicked off of the program are the very people who have the greatest barriers to work. A recent report from the Urban Institute identifies many of those barriers, including: mental and physical health challenges; lack of a high school diploma; caring for a child with special needs or another family member with a disability; and living with domestic violence. The authors conclude that the “one-size-fits all work approach” doesn’t work for parents who face significant barriers to employment.
“More than 50 percent of OWF recipients went to work in prior years and some managed to get off the rolls,” says Frech. “Many of the people who are left now are the folks who have the greatest barriers. So now we start over and say, OK, now 50 percent of the remaining people still have to work. That’s unfair on the face of it. The logical question we should be asking is this: Should we be denying families with children any cash whatsoever to live on—just because we’re not able to get their parents to go to a thirty-hour work assignment somewhere?”
Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks in Columbus, has worked on poverty-related issues for twenty-five years. She agrees with Frech, adding, “Welfare policy has been completely disconnected from the realities that states and communities and families are facing every day.”