Welfare Recipients Await Impact of “Reformation”

by Alex Grabtree

The Governor signed into law a new era in assistance to the needy after the Ohio House and Senate passed so called “welfare reform legislation” (House Bill 408) with only one legislator voting against the bill. As reported earlier, there are strict three-year time limits on receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families in contrast to a five-year limit under the federal legislation. There is a provision that after using the three years of receiving TANF assistance the family cannot receive aid for two years. The family can reapply after two years for assistance if they show good cause.

Vital issues in Cuyahoga County and other areas of high concentrations of poverty include childcare, transportation and local flexibility in overseeing the project. There are dramatic changes in store which time will tell if they have appositive impact on our community.

It seems that legislators and human services officials as well as local officials have resigned themselves to the reality of fundamental changes in welfare and few have questioned the fundamental basis of reform, which is putting women with children to work. Cuyahoga County Commissioner Tim Hagan, who has chaired a committee to advocate for welfare reform that has a positive impact on Cleveland said, “We have to deal with the reality and that reality is this proposal (HB 408), and if we move through it well, we will at least be responsive to what is perceived as giving people the possibility of more dignity and opportunity.”

Activists have a different view of the legislation. Gail Long, Director of Merrick Settlement House said, “I question whether it is true reform or merely punitive. I don’t think it went far enough to really make a difference in terms of working with people who can and will be employed and maintaining a safety net for those who will always need some form of public assistance. I think that they will need to revisit issues like day care, the time limits for the population, transportation issues and whether there really are jobs out there for the welfare recipients.”

The Cincinnati Welfare Rights Director Katy Heins said, “This is bad public policy because it will not get people out of poverty. It is built on the myths and racism of Ohio legislators.”

The new rule allows families to keep their state paid medical coverage for one year after they stop receiving assistance. Medicaid is also expanded to include all children under 19 with family incomes at or below 150% of the federal poverty level, which is around $19,000 for a family of three.

House Bill 408 went beyond the Federal regulations in requiring TANF recipients to participate in 30 hours of work activities. The reformed welfare recipients are allowed to use 10 hours of the required 30 hours in educational or developmental activities.

Counties may exempt those with children under one year old. Families previously were exempt while their children were under three years old. Each county must have 80% of the TANF population engaged in 30 hours of work or they will be sanctioned. A sanction means a loss of funds and eventual State takeover. Those counties that consistently meet State standard will be rewarded with additional funds.

The huge problem of transportation for recipients was given a nod with a $5 million allocation for transportation initiatives and a planning committee for the future. Transportation is a tremendous problem in Cleveland where many entry-level jobs are totally inaccessible by bus.

Those families engaged in the Ohio Works First workfare (see story below) component of the TANF program are guaranteed child care assistance. Childcare subsidies were expanded to include transitional care while a family transitions from welfare to work, and those currently receiving childcare assistance. Some working poor families will be dropped from receiving assistance.

The State is matching the Federal block Grant with the minimum amount required by law. The Governor also appropriated an additional $3 million to local food banks to address the projected increase in emergency good assistance and to “make up” for the $180 million cut from food stamps.

When asked for their opinion about what all this will mean to poor people both Heins and Long saw potential risk and increases in poverty. Long said, “It could be disastrous.” She felt that there was little thought about the possibility of an economic downturn or recession hitting Ohio in three years when women were facing welfare time limits. “Where would they turn?” Long asked.

Heins went further claiming that she has already seen women and children who are homeless because of the “reform” that took place last year. “I believe that it will cause more homelessness because of the harsh sanctions. We already know of families that were sanctioned into homelessness because of House Bill 167 (last year’s attempt at reform by the Ohio Legislature).

One battle on the National level, which will have an impact on Ohio, is whether to pay people a minimum wage for workfare slots. In New York, ACORN and WEP Workers Organizing Council are attempting to organize and unionize those individuals who are engaged in workfare activities. Workfare is a program to place able-bodied adults who are not in an education or training program in community service activities. According to the Welfare Law Center, virtually all of the workfare workers earn less the prevailing wage and some even make less than minimum wage.

Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine Issue 22, August-September 1997, Cleveland, Ohio