Food Stamps Under Attack

Commentary by members of the Staff of the Ohio Empowerment Coalition

     Cincinnati members of the Ohio Empowerment Coalition left early in the morning of December 16th, in a last effort to stop the JCARR (Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review) from voting through acceptance of an Ohio Department Of Human Services policy to cut off the adult portion of food stamps when sanctioned.

     We went knowing that the JCARR was heavily in favor of this sanction. H.B 408, The Ohio welfare policy for families that was signed into law in July, made no mention of cutting off food stamps to children or adults if under sanction, only that food stamps would not increase.

     We already had a partial victory. JCARR had voted to not cut food stamps for an assistance group under sanction. Arnold Tompkins, Director of the Ohio Department Human Services (ODHS), unhappy about the JCARR members not supporting him in cutting off food stamps for children designed a compromise.

     Even though we lost this issue, it was very close. The final vote was a tie: 4-4. It required another vote to overturn the ODHS policy of sanctioning adults with the loss of food stamps. What was very encouraging for us was the fact that the legislators who sided with us stated they did so after hearing testimony from our side. Senator Greg DiDonato made the motion to overturn the ODHS policy, saying he has changed his mind after listening to our testimony!

     We had enough influence to sway four legislators to vote against the ODHS policy!!

The vote was 4-2 with 4 for us when the JCARR hearing ended at 12:30. The four legislators who voted for us were Senator Greg DiDinato, Representative J. Donald Mottley, Senator Leigh Herington, and representative Michael Verich. When a reporter questioned Rep. Joan Lawrence about how the last two-committee members would vote, she retorted, “They aren’t here, but I know they will vote on my side.” (That is, with ODHS policy). The final two deciding votes were from non-present legislators who had until 5:00 PM to vote.

     Right before the vote, the JCARR chair asked the representative of ODHS if she had any final comments on our testimony. She had the final say and refuted nearly all the truths we had spoken out about. Even though 374 assistance cases of single-parent households and 14 2-parent households (after a massive termination of two-parent families) occurred in Hamilton County in October alone of this year, she testified that no loss of food stamps had occurred in Ohio during October or November due to sanctions.

     She also refuted our testimony that many recipients do not know they can win a hearing if they appealed. She did not understand our testimony. We had stated that many times recipients do not know when caseworkers make mistakes on policy rules. Cassandra Barham had testified, “People are coming to us who have been sanctioned by mistake, but how many people are out there who don’t know their caseworker made a mistake? They don’t think they could win an appeal against the authorities. So they don’t bother to try.”

     One of the legislators questioned the ODHS Legal Advisor who testified. Why, if ODHS knew the federal government did not require children to lose their food stamps under a sanction, did ODHS adopt such a harsh policy? If the Federal Government did not require it, did ODHS initially want to cut off children from food stamps? The ODHS official was at a loss for words. Welfare Rights Coalition members believe ODHS officials knew full well what the government requirements were, but ODHS wanted to use as large a stick as possible to punish recipients into compliance (or submission).

     Other members of our statewide welfare rights coalition, the Ohio Empowerment Coalition, testified at this hearing, including Logan Martinez of the Miami Full Employment Council (Dayton) and Mark Stansberry of Columbus. They spoke out on the effects that food stamp cuts (and all the sanctions) would have on Ohio’s poorest citizens. Gregory Payton of the Ohio Empowerment Coalition and staff at Cincinnati’s largest shelter, spoke fervently against the cutting of food stamps and the other sanctions, as well.

     “At the Drop Inn Center, I see mothers and children coming in who are on the streets with no place to go. What do we do about them? The family shelters are full and have waiting lists.” The Drop Inn Center is a shelter for single men and women without children. Margaret Hulbert of the United Way and Lisa Hamler-Podoloski of the Ohio Food Policy & Anti-Poverty Action Group testified strongly against the food stamp cuts.

     The Ohio Empowerment Coalition held a successful Press Conference before the Hearing in the Statehouse Atrium. At least three TV stations, the Associated Press, and two major newspapers did interviews with members of OEC. The TV stations filmed our skit, “The Christmas Carol” with Cassandra Barham starring as Scrooge (Mr. Tompkins). “The Columbus Dispatch” reported on our play depicting Arnold Tomkins as Scrooge.

     Even though we didn’t “win” a complete victory on the food stamp sanctions, the Welfare Rights Coalition and Ohio Empowerment Coalition made a powerful impact. Recipient voices were heard, and swayed the vote to a tie. Because of our united testimony on this issue, and the many calls and letters from our supporters to JCARR, sanctions have been softened. Families will not lose all of their food stamps. We will continue to monitor these sanctions and work for policy changes that are a hand up, not a big stick to beat down.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published 1998 Issue 24