What welfare-to-work?

‘Work rules’ have proved more effective at purging poor Ohioans from welfare rolls than helping them get jobs


Gov. John Kasich’s administration is imposing new work requirements on some Ohio food-stamp recipients. Instead of expanding the Medicaid program of health insurance for poor and disabled Ohioans under Obamacare, many state lawmakers want to restrict Medicaid eligibility through, among other things, tough new work rules.

Before these efforts proceed much further, it’s useful to evaluate how well the “welfare to work” blueprint has succeeded in the state’s key welfare program, Ohio Works First. Listen to the conclusion of one of two credible new studies of so-called workfare in our state: “Ohio Works First should not be the model for a work-force program.”

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Ohio Works First provides cash aid, called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, and other help to families with children. The maximum benefit for a family of three is $458 a month.

These recipients are the poorest of the poor: To be eligible for benefits, their incomes must be less than half of the federal poverty level. Some counties have no adult Ohio Works First recipients at all.

Under federal welfare reform law, at least half of single parents enrolled in the program (and 90 percent of two-parent families) must work, take part in job training, or perform equivalent activities for 30 hours a week. States that don’t maintain that 50-percent standard face fines imposed by Washington.

The laudable goal of these rules is to encourage welfare recipients to emerge from poverty and achieve economic self-sufficiency through work. But a new report by the Center for Community Solutions, a Cleveland-based research and advocacy group, suggests the state’s enforcement of work rules has been more effective at slashing welfare caseloads than at moving people into jobs.

The study’s author, Tara Dolansky, notes that the number of adults enrolled in Ohio Works First fell by nearly two-thirds between January 2011, when Governor Kasich took office, and June 2013. This wasn’t because all of these former recipients found jobs, she says.

Rather, many were removed from the rolls, often for their failure to comply with work requirements, or because they used up their three years of benefits eligibility whether or not they got work. She calls this approach “unnecessarily punitive.”

Ms. Dolansky notes that many Ohio Works First recipients face major barriers to employment: lack of transportation and child care, poor reading skills, mental and physical illness. At the same time, she says, drastic cuts in state funding in recent years have hampered the ability of county job and family services departments to offer the support and training their clients need to get and keep jobs.

The new two-year state budget starts to reverse that disinvestment. But the damage has been done.

Even as the state’s economy and job climate have improved, albeit slowly, fewer Ohio Works First recipients than ever before are in work assignments, the report concludes. Ms. Dolansky adds that fewer than one-third of Ohioans with less than a high-school education are working or actively seeking a job today — a smaller percentage than before welfare reform was enacted in 1996.

At the same time, the number of children receiving aid from Ohio Works First has fallen by 36 percent since early 2011. In two-thirds of current cases, children who get benefits live with relatives or other caregivers, instead of their parents. As Ms. Dolansky says: “This does not sound like a work-force program.”

Another report, commissioned by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, was released this month although it was finished in May, during the debate over the new state budget. The study, conducted by Public Consulting Group, a management consultant agency, included researchers’ visits to 16 counties, including Lucas County.

Like the Center for Community Solutions report, the consultants find that Ohio has met its work-rule targets mainly “through a reduction in caseload.” The study calls that outcome “an unfortunate side effect of a process focused performance measure”; a county welfare director said it “became a religion.”

The deep drop in Ohio Works First’s caseload, even as the state’s poverty and unemployment rates remain high, does not argue for the program’s success at putting poor Ohioans to work. Nor is it a reliable model for state lawmakers to invoke as they seek to “reform” Medicaid.