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Published: Sunday, 4/22/2012

'As we know it'

Welfare rolls continue to drop in Lucas County, across Ohio, and in many other states. Good news, right?

Not if you're one of the needy recipients whose public cash assistance got cut off in the midst of the Great Recession. Their numbers include tens of thousands of Ohioans, children as well as adults. Many of the adults, a disproportionate number of whom are single mothers, have little hope of finding steady work.

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That's not because they are lazy, but because the challenge of coping with an economy that is creating too few jobs is often compounded by personal problems: physical or mental illness, the need to care for children and other family members, domestic violence, poor education, lack of work skills.

Instead of doubling down on "tough love" policies that remain more punitive than compassionate, Columbus ought to concede the realities of the state's hard times and adjust its welfare standards -- time limits, work rules, eligibility policies, and benefit levels -- accordingly. But the ideology of state government has shifted in the opposite direction.

A special report in today's Blade notes that since the beginning of 2011, more than 62,000 Ohioans -- fully one-quarter of the caseload -- have left the rolls of Ohio Works First, the state's federally subsidized version of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Analysts say these people generally haven't found steady jobs -- a goal of welfare reform -- but simply exhausted their eligibility or otherwise failed to meet requirements. At the same time, funding of programs that help welfare recipients get jobs also has been cut.

A family of three enrolled in Ohio Works First gets cash assistance of $450 a month. Nobody's living the high life on that, but it can be enough to keep families out of destitution -- except when the expense of complying with work rules, for such things as transportation and child care, exceeds the value of benefits.

The promise to "end welfare as we know it" held great appeal when federal welfare reform took effect in the mid-1990s. In a booming economy, replacing a welfare check with a paycheck was easier to accomplish than it is today.

Yet despite Ohio's tough times, state and county governments are motivated to continue to cut their welfare rolls, although they deny that is their intent. The state faces a $130 million federal penalty because of its failure over the past five years to ensure that enough recipients are taking part in 30 hours a week of "work activities" -- generally a community-service job, school, or job training.

So welfare officials are enforcing the program's work rules to the letter, even when that rigidity affects people who clearly aren't trying to game the system. It isn't clear why they should be punished for the state's bureaucratic difficulties.

The federal welfare-reform law places a five-year limit on eligibility for cash aid, but Ohio imposes a cutoff after three years. That policy also deserves to be re-examined -- as do the big differences among counties in granting hardship extensions -- but state officials have shown no interest in such matters.

Ohio isn't alone. The Blade report notes that before welfare reform took effect, two-thirds of poor families nationwide received cash assistance. Today, it's barely one-fourth, despite the recession.

A recent report in the New York Times described what poor people who were dropped from Arizona's welfare rolls are doing to survive. The newspaper says they "have sold food stamps, sold blood, skipped meals, shoplifted, doubled up with friends, scavenged trash bins for bottles and cans, and returned to relationships with violent partners -- all with children in tow."

Now Republican leaders, including presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, are calling for similar cuts in other federal safety-net programs, notably food stamps and Medicaid. It's for poor Americans' own good, they say, to prevent dependency.

Welfare should not be a way of life, especially across generations. Ohio's case-load, like those of other states, grew too large before welfare reform.

Time limits on welfare eligibility and work requirements are warranted -- provided they are aligned both with economic reality and individual circumstances. As welfare recipients are forced, however harshly, to keep their end of the bargain, it's time for government at all levels to hold up its end as well.



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