Scrooging the poor

Mr. Kasich’s myopic move to impose work requirements on some food stamp recipients will deny needed benefits

Gov. John Kasich needs to speak up for a waiver of work-rule requirements for food stamp recipients  from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Gov. John Kasich needs to speak up for a waiver of work-rule requirements for food stamp recipients from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As a sometimes compassionate and even courageous conservative, Gov. John Kasich has shown he’s willing to buck his party’s ideologues when knee-jerk reactions obstruct common sense and sound policy. In championing health care for the poor by expanding Medicaid coverage to 275,000 additional Ohioans, the governor rightly scolded some Republican lawmakers for cutting government programs at all costs.

But Mr. Kasich has become equally myopic in reinstating work requirements for some food stamp recipients in most Ohio counties. That move will deny people needed benefits while hunger remains a serious problem in our state.

Click here to read more Blade editorials.

The governor ought to reverse course and seek another waiver of the requirements from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If not, the work rule changes, effective Jan. 1, will hit an estimated 134,000 single adult Ohioans without dependent children in 72 counties, including more than 8,000 in Lucas County.

Making matters worse, these changes will unfold as extended unemployment benefits, thanks to Congress, are about to expire for an estimated 129,000 long-term jobless Ohioans.

Work rules — requiring recipients between the ages 18 and 50 to work at least 20 hours a week, prove they’re in school, or participate in job training or preparation programs — might sound reasonable to many Ohioans. But there are not enough jobs to accommodate the new policy. The net effect will be to deny benefits to thousands of needy people in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program, better known as food stamps.

These changes are punitive and suggest that many people abuse the program. In truth, the opposite is the case: Many eligible people don’t apply for food stamps, and fraud rates for those who do remain extremely low.

Until now, all 88 Ohio counties have received federal waivers from work requirements. But the governor chose this year to request extensions for only the 16 counties with the worst jobless rates.

Hunger, however, is a statewide problem. A new federal report shows that one in six Ohio families faced hunger last year. More than 1.8 million Ohioans rely on food stamps to get enough to eat. Current benefit levels — in Ohio, $132 per person per month — are already inadequate.

Opportunities for meaningful job training and work experience for the state’s most disadvantaged people will remain minimal. Some able-bodied food stamp recipients with mental disorders are applying for Social Security disability benefits — a process that can take years.

Other recipients have no transportation; in Toledo, 14 percent of households, nearly all of them poor, don’t have vehicles. Statewide, at least 15 percent of food stamp recipients — an estimated 260,000 — have no cash income.

Federal work participation requirements already have thrown tens of thousands of Ohio families off the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Work requirements have been central to state and federal welfare reform efforts for nearly two decades.

Even so, such rules succeed in moving people into the economic mainstream only when they are bolstered by additional job training, transportation, child care, and other support. No additional resources or money would accompany Ohio’s new work requirements.

The Kasich administration, taking a cue from Scrooge, describes work rules as a benefit to help poor people launch careers or escape poverty. Humbug.

Governor Kasich can best accomplish these things by maintaining federal waivers from work requirements that in a still-anemic economy are more punitive than prudent.