By Brian Davis
In 1997 welfare ended, just as President Clinton promised. Oho developed one of the more draconian plans in the country. We adopted a three -year limit instead of a federal five - year rule. We did not adopt state-mandated exemptions as other states did for those with domestic violence or other barriers. We did not adopt exemptions so that people in high unemployment areas could collect food stamps. Ohio adopted a very strict sanctions policy that sanctioned children from their parent’s errors and sanctions food stamps. We also did not allow a family to receive a check when they came into compliance after sanction. The family had to serve out their sanction even if they came back into compliance the day after the sanction started.
Then in Cuyahoga County, we developed a plan that is harmful to our most venerable. Our County Commissioners refused to see the harm that this legislation is doing to our community. They do not see the huge amount of money that has left our neighborhoods. They do not see the instability this legislation has caused in our family’s housing and medical care. They have silenced opposition to welfare reform by giving out $36 million in funds to non-profits that used to go directly to clients. Now they are jerking families around with a game of chicken by refusing to acknowledge the need for exemptions for some families.
All these decisions fly in the face of statistics. We have not created enough jobs in Ohio or Cuyahoga County to meet the number of people leaving the rolls. Our urban communities are not seeing the prosperity of other areas of the state. Those leaving the welfare rolls are not for the most part better off. Those leaving do not have health insurance, they do not have wages that lift them out of poverty and they face very tenuous housing situations. Child poverty has increased in every county in Ohio in the 1990s/
The County is allowed to exempt 20% of the population on welfare for the last month. The Commissioners are refusing to announce an exemption policy because “they want all families to succeed.” They feel that if they declare an exemption there will be no incentive for these families to leave cash assistance. They have until the middle of August to notify the State of which families will be eligible for an exemption. The state has 7,500 families who will most likely hit their three-year limit in October with Cuyahoga County home to almost haft of those families (3,500).
The county has interviewed all 3,500 families over the last two months in an attempt to intervene before the deadline. They have also picked up the pace in sanctioning families. If they give a three-month sanction to 1,000 families who were going to reach their limit in October then those families will not reach their lifetime limit until three months late (January). Other counties have had huge sanctioning programs since 1997, which will mean a greater staggering of those who reach their lifetime limit.
The tragedy is that the families who have done everything that they were told to do and have lived by all the rules will also face a massive cut in their income in October. There are a sizable population of the 3,500 who work full time and a majority that work full or part time, but still must collect a check. These families cannot a job that pays a non-poverty wage, and take a smaller check from the welfare office but depend on that income. They went to work, lived by all the rules, but their government refused to require their employer pay them a living wage, and is going to turn around and throw them off in October. This will save the county $50-$100 a month per family, but will have huge societal costs in the future with increased experience in juvenile justice, housing support, child welfare and Medicare.
These families will hang on for a couple of months by moving in with family members, but will increasing destabilize and disintegrate until the children are taken or they willingly give up custody. We have already seen a 200% increase in the number of children in the foster care or adoption system in the last three years. It is going to be a tragic Christmas in Cuyahoga County. Because the shelter system is already full, they will not show up in the shelters. The emergency food system will be taxed. Survival will trump the health care needs of the family. The schools will be disrupted, and our neighborhoods will see more money disappear that supports businesses.
We urge the County to use the 20% exemption to exempt those families working and those without stable housing. We urge the state to at lease debate these issues by allowing a committee hearing on time limits. We urge the Department of Human Services to deliver to the legislature a report on the impact of welfare reform on poverty in Ohio. Finally, we urge someone to corner the County Commissioners and force them to look in your eyes and tell you that welfare reform has not hurt children in our County. If it has, then why are they not recommending secession from the State of Ohio? We entrusted them to do no harm and they have not kept that oath.
Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #43, July-August 2000