Last September, a bipartisan coalition of approximately 70 mayors across 13 counties in Appalachian Ohio had an idea: With so many people thrown off cash assistance (TANF) by the state in recent years, the coalition said that the Kasich administration was now sitting on more than $500 million in unused funds from the program’s block grant. So they requested $12 million to help their constituents, some of the poorest in Ohio: $8 million to prevent water shutoffs, and $4 million to purchase essential items like diapers, feminine-hygiene products, first-aid supplies, and over-the-counter medications.
“We’re just trying to make sure our constituents have the safe water and essential products in their homes that are needed for the health and safety of their families,” said Gary Goosman, mayor of the village of Amesville, population 180, and president of the Mayors’ Partnership for Progress. “The state has more than enough resources to get this done.”
Since 2011, TANF caseloads in Ohio have been cut nearly in half, from 99,000 to 53,000 households. The drop isn’t because people are faring better, but largely due to the program’s inflexible work requirement that many struggle to meet when they can’t work, lack needed transportation to get to a job, or can’t get enough hours at the jobs they do have.
As a result, for every 100 families with children in poverty in the state, only about 22 now receive cash assistance—down from 29 in 2013, and 89 prior to bipartisan “welfare reform” in 1996. There are now many more children in Ohio living in households with zero cash income than there are children in families receiving cash assistance. (The Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services declined to provide an exact figure.) This is a problem nationwide, as evident in the rise in the number of households living on less than $2 per person, per day: from 636,000 in 1996 to nearly 1.5 million in 2011. Over the same period, the number of children in the United States living in $2-a-day poverty also doubled, from 1.4 million to 2.8 million.
Goosman said that this drain in assistance is having a significant effect on the local economies of many rural communities in Ohio. In the mayors’ region alone, there is now at least $50 million less annually in cash assistance and SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) benefits compared with 2011. The average SNAP benefit is just $1.40 per person, per meal—and, like TANF, the program has strict work requirements for certain recipients.
“An entire town can be impacted by the amount of money residents have to spend on groceries, or medications, or transportation. People are living closer to the edge,” said Goosman.
And yet, seven months after the mayors’ request, the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services (JFS) would only tell the coalition repeatedly that its proposal remained under consideration.
Finally, on May 4, JFS notified the mayors via e-mail: In September—one year after its initial request—the coalition will receive $500,000 from the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) toward water-bill assistance. In all, the grant will provide 2,450 households with a one-time payment of $200 “to ensure service will be maintained for a minimum of 30 days.” This seems a drop in the bucket in a state where 22 percent of neighborhoods have residents who are currently unable to cover their monthly water bill. The average water-sewer rate in Ohio in 2016 was $1,289 annually, which helps explain why the mayors were looking for individual payments of $500 to qualifying families living below 150 percent of the federal poverty line and a total of $8 million toward assistance. There was also no mention of the mayors’ $4 million funding request in support of the purchase of essential household items for cash-poor families.
JFS provided the bipartisan mayors group with no explanation as to how it reached its figure, or why the funds would be drawn from those already earmarked for cash-strapped community action agencies that provide local services like housing assistance, job training, energy assistance, child care, transportation, and more.
“It was a surprise,” said Goosman. “While we appreciate this funding and it will help us get a pilot program going, we weren’t asking for $500,000 from CSBG, we were asking for $12 million out of $570 million in unspent TANF funds.”
A spokesperson for JFS confirmed that there are indeed now $570.7 million in unused TANF funds. However, he said that those monies are committed to increased funding for childcare facilities that are able to meet the state’s new quality standards. But the mayors’ towns might not benefit from those funds either.
“In our region, a lot of our childcare facilities won’t even be able to afford the quality improvements the state is mandating, so they will shut down,” said Jack Frech, an Americorps VISTA volunteer with the coalition who retired after 33 years as director of the Athens County Department of Jobs and Family Services. “So the TANF money intended for our poor and working-class families will instead go to facilities primarily serving wealthier kids.” (JFS declined to comment.)
It is also notable that a recent congressional appropriation included an 80 percent increase in discretionary childcare funding—enough that one might think the state need not force its mayors to choose between water now and childcare in the future.
The bipartisan group of mayors met last week to discuss next steps. “We voted unanimously: We’re happy to have the $500,000, but we’re still requesting the $12 million from the state,” said Goosman.