This year’s state budget bill includes five new initiatives aimed at getting Ohioans into jobs and limiting public assistance. A focus on reducing poverty and helping families could be good. But the structure of the initiatives seems based on inaccurate assumptions.
It presumes that public assistance recipients are not working. It presumes that Ohio has an adequate number of available jobs, with wages high enough to reduce public assistance. And it presumes a lack of incentives for people to work or for county human service departments to do their jobs.
Hundreds of thousands of Ohioans enrolled in public assistance programs already work. Cash assistance and food aid have work requirements. But wages in many jobs are so low that some working families remain eligible for public assistance. Median annual wages in 7 of the 10 biggest job categories in the Toledo area leave a parent with two children living in or close to poverty.
The cost of self-sufficiency is more than twice the poverty level in Lucas County. A single working parent with an infant and a toddler needs $52,277 a year to be self-sufficient; that is $24.75 an hour. The median annual wage of more than three-quarters of occupations in the Toledo area is less than that.
Poverty is a terrible hardship. The physical, psychological, and social costs of poverty are well documented. The intergenerational costs of poor nutrition, food insecurity, constantly changing households, and family stress are high. People — especially parents — do not choose a life of poverty.
A household living at half the poverty level — less than $10,000 a year for a family of three — is considered to be in deep poverty. Between 2000 and 2012, Ohio had the third-greatest jump of all states in its share of families living in deep poverty. During the same period, the share of Ohio children living in deep poverty rose from 9 to 12 percent.
Yet in Ohio’s cash-assistance program, which helps only families in deep poverty with minor children, the caseload of adults dropped by 71 percent, and the caseload of children by 40 percent, between January, 2011, and June, 2014 — even as deep poverty increased.
Ohio’s policy makers have cut other aid as well. They made it harder for working parents to become eligible for public child-care assistance. They refused a federal waiver that would have allowed more adults to get food aid in 72 of the state’s 88 counties.
Gov. John Kasich did expand Ohio’s Medicaid program to cover more working-poor families. The expansion will bring more than $2.5 billion in federal aid to the state over two years and extend health insurance to 366,000 more working Ohioans. But this smart step was a departure from a set of policies that have generally not helped the poorest Ohioans.
Jobs are hard to get and keep in this economy. Ohio’s employment market remains more than 100,000 jobs below the number it had before the Great Recession, and more than 330,000 jobs below the number that preceded the recession of the early 2000s.
After earlier recessions, we fully recovered the number of jobs we had lost within three or four years. But we still haven’t recovered the jobs we lost in either of the last two recessions.
We have too few jobs, and we have too few jobs that pay wages that allow families to be self-sufficient. The work forces of Ohio’s 50 largest employers in March, 2014, included 115,488 workers and their families who needed food aid to put dinner on the table, and 141,182 workers who got health care through Medicaid.
Employers in this group include Walmart, Aramark, Kelly Services, and Target. The gap between what they pay and what their workers need to live is shifted to the public sector.
It would be great if the initiatives in the new budget bill help families get good jobs. But Ohio’s track record makes this outcome seem elusive: we have too few jobs, the pay is too low, and we have been too quick to slash the safety net.
Wendy Patton is senior project director of Policy Matters Ohio, a state policy research institute with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.