Ohio Paring Welfare Rolls With Tough Three-Year Limit
By Bill Cohen, Special to Stateline
A new federal law limits Americans to five years on welfare, but some states have enacted tougher limits and Ohio is one of them. In fact, Ohio's new three-year cap on welfare payments has just started paring welfare recipients from the Buckeye State's rolls.
This month, 3,800 families that had been receiving monthly welfare checks didn't get one. In November, the time limit is expected to cut nearly 2,000 more families from the welfare rolls.
Since the three-year clock began ticking in 1997, the number of Ohioans on welfare has been plummeting. It has dropped 45% from 422,000 to 240,000.Those who are losing their monthly welfare checks due to time limits may still be eligible for food stamps, subsidized housing, discount child care, and free medical care.
And Ohio's 88 counties are allowed to exempt up to 20 percent of recipients from the cut-off due to extenuating circumstances. Two classes of people who fall under this category are victims of domestic violence and those who have to care for an elderly relative at home.
But that's not good enough for welfare rights activists, who have chanted "Hey, hey, ho ho. Time limits have got to go" during two protest rallies at the Statehouse in Columbus.They say that three years simply hasn't been enough time for some families to make the transition from monthly welfare checks to paychecks.
Republicans who control the Ohio Legislature are unmoved. They note that the state had beefed up its job training and high school equivalency classes for the poor, so welfare recipients had ample time and resources to make the move from welfare to work -- particularly during a time when the state's 4 percent jobless rate is close to a 30-year low and even fast food restaurants are paying well above minimum wage.
Republican State Sen. Gene Watts calls the three-year time limit "tough love that is not punitive but is beneficial." He says it moves Ohio away from the "plantation philosophy" that the poor cannot better themselves and must be perpetual wards of the state.
Alisha Williams, 29, is the kind of former welfare recipient that Watts and other time limit backers hold up as a shining example of how Ohio's welfare-to-work program can work. The 29-year-old mother of four had been on welfare for eight years. This summer, when she got final notice that her welfare checks would end in October, Williams entered a job training program.
Now she works as an administrative assistant at the Columbus Urban League, helping others move from welfare to work.
"I have this big boost of energy now. I feel vibrant," Williams says. She praises the welfare time limit for motivating her, noting, "I just needed that extra push."
Despite her apparent success, Williams still sympathizes with welfare recipients who are not self-sufficient. "Who am I to look down on anyone?" she asks.
Welfare rights advocates agree, as they continue to press Republican Gov. Bob Taft and legislators to relax the three-year time limit. "Throwing women and children into destitution is not right," says Dayton welfare organizer Logan Martinez.
The only problem is, it's been nearly impossible to find those women and children that Martinez portrays as innocent victims.
Reporters covering the welfare rights protests at the Capitol have asked organizers to point them to demonstrators who personify the dilemma of mothers and children being bumped off welfare without jobs. But the organizers have come up empty-handed.
Away from the rallies, reporters have also asked welfare rights activists for actual examples of whole families who are victims of unfair cutoffs. Again, none have surfaced for interviews.
There's a good reason, according to Mark Balson, a social worker who's helping six Columbus community centers offer assistance to those being dropped from the welfare rolls by time limits. He says inaction by those no longer getting welfare checks is the cause of their predicament.
"I cannot name a family where they just were terminated with no benefits, no support, and no plan, unless they chose to do that," he says. Balson says the small proportion of those being cut from welfare without jobs have refused offers of jobs or job training. Or, he says, they've dropped out of G.E.D. classes.
Nationwide, about 30 states have a five-year limit on welfare payments. The others, like Ohio, have tougher limits.
Bill Cohen is a reporter with the Ohio Public Radio/Public TV Statehouse News Bureau.