Friday, May 10, 2002

Ohio welfare population hits plateau at 200,000

Bush to visit state; reform law soon up for renewal

By Liz Sidoti
The Associated Press

        COLUMBUS — The state's 10-year thinning of welfare rolls appears to be over.

        The number of people receiving assistance is hovering around 200,000, compared with the all-time high of 748,717 in 1992 when Ohio started some of the welfare reforms that would become law five years later.

        That's likely as low as it will get, Joel Potts, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services' welfare policy administrator, said Thursday.

        “At some point we knew we would hit some plateau,” he said. “We're not sure how much lower we can really go. There's always going to be situations where people need assistance here.”

        President Bush is to visit the state today to talk about his plans for updating the 1996 federal welfare reform law, which Congress must renew this year.

        He will stop at St. Stephen's Community House before attending a fund-raiser for the re-election campaign of Gov. Bob Taft.

Partner in uplift effort

        The 83-year-old St. Stephen's is a centerpiece of the Linden neighborhood, one of the city's poorest and a recent target for redevelopment. It is one of dozens of such facilities across the state that partner with counties to help people move from welfare to work, said Mark Balson, coordinator for the Columbus Federation of Settlement Houses.

        The state has cut its caseload by 74 percent since 1992, mainly because of programs implemented in the 1990s.

        Ohio's version of the federal welfare reform law, Ohio Works First, started in October 1997 and limits cash assistance to three years. Welfare recipients still are able to collect other benefits, including food stamps, child care, job training and health insurance through Medicaid.

Steady drop

        Since then, the number of individuals on public assistance has dropped from 422,442 to 198,023 last month. About $26.5 million is spent monthly on welfare recipients.

        The caseload has leveled off over the past year. The only major exception was in September when the number of individuals dropped to 194,977, the lowest level since 1967.

        “We're not going to eliminate those cases any more than we can eradicate poverty,” Mr. Potts said.

        Many of the people who remain on welfare have the most difficult barriers, such as homelessness, domestic violence, drug abuse, or multiple barriers that prevent them from getting and keeping a job, Mr. Balson said.

        His group's six social service agencies, most religiously based, partner with the Franklin County Job and Family Services Department to help former welfare recipients become self-sufficient.

        The public-private partnership typifies the kind that Mr. Bush advocates.

Effect debated

        The state and advocates for the poor agree that welfare reform in Ohio, and not entirely the good economy of the late 1990s, caused the drop in numbers.

        However, some advocates say the reform hasn't been as successful as national and state leaders claim.

        “The fact is, many people have moved into jobs, but they're still very low-paying jobs,” said Lynn Williams, an organizer with the Ohio Empowerment Coalition, based in Cincinnati. “We need more education and job training so that people can get into higher paying jobs.”

        Caseload reductions can't be the only measure of whether welfare reform is successful, said Alvin Schorr, a professor emeritus of family and child welfare at Case Western Reserve University.

        “If you count as success that people should have more money to live on, Ohio has not done very well,” he said. “In general, people here live on as little as they had when they were getting welfare.”

        Not true, Mr. Potts said.

        Studies show that the average family that has left the rolls now earns $1,410 a month compared with a maximum of $373 when they were collecting cash assistance, he said.


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