THE number of adults and children who get aid through the Ohio Works First program dropped in July to 151,495 -- a dramatic decline of roughly one-third in less than two years. Normally, Ohioans would applaud that trend as a welcome sign of a recovering economy.
Unfortunately, that's not what's happening, as state jobless and poverty rates remain unacceptably high. Tens of thousands of Ohioans who have lost Temporary Assistance to Needy Families support have not landed steady jobs -- the goal of welfare reform.
Instead, rigidly applied rules and harsh time limits have shoved them off the rolls, as the state strives to meet work-participation goals and avoid a federal penalty of $135 million.
Work requirements are part of the 1996 welfare reform law, championed by then-President Bill Clinton and state governors of both parties. Making work central to welfare reform is a sound idea -- as long as states and the federal government offer people the training, transportation, child care, and other support they need to move into the economic mainstream.
Despite a still-struggling economy, stringent work rules remain in effect while Ohio, Michigan, and many other states fail to provide the help people need to meet them. Ohio has gone a step further by imposing harsh time limits on cash assistance and failing to grant hardship extensions permitted by federal law.
"It's indefensible for enrollment to decline in these economic times, with food stamps and Medicaid [case loads] going up," says Eugene King, director of the Ohio Poverty Law Center in Columbus.
The federal government is not without fault either. Threatening states with economic sanctions if they don't meet rigid work-participation goals encourages the kind of mischief Ohio appears to be engaged in. If other states also are pushing people off welfare rolls to make their work participation rates look better, Congress and the Obama Administration need to reconsider how best to encourage recipients to find good jobs.
Federal law places a five-year limit on eligibility for cash aid, but Ohio imposes a cutoff after three years. A family of three enrolled in Ohio Works First gets $450 a month. States can grant hardship extensions to 20 percent of their case loads, but Ohio counties approve them at a rate of zero to 12 percent, Mr. King says.
As a start, Ohio welfare officials should re-examine the state's 36-month limit on cash assistance. It should grant more hardship exemptions when recipients are in poor health, lack housing, or have been afflicted by fires or accidents.
Caseworkers must be flexible. The state should determine whether counties are properly assessing disabilities. More resources need to go to job training, transportation, child care, and other support that people need to go to work.
Finally, the state Department of Job and Family Services ought to explain why welfare case loads are dropping, so that politicians and policy makers can make informed decisions. With nearly one in four children in Ohio living in poverty, declining welfare rolls should become a call to action, not a reason to cheer.