Sunday, May 27, 2018
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Hunger games

Imposing work rules on Ohio food-stamp recipients when few jobs are available is shortsighted state policy

About 10,000 low-income Ohioans lost food-stamp benefits last month, because of Gov. John Kasich’s decision to enforce work mandates for many recipients at a time when jobless rates across the state remain distressingly high. If the governor does not reverse that policy, the number of vulnerable people who will be deprived of food-stamp aid is likely to rise even more in coming months.

As courageous and sensible as Mr. Kasich’s decision was to expand Ohio’s Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act, his shortsighted food-stamp edict could greatly limit the advantages of that sound move. The governor can, and should, reconsider his position.

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Rules set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — which runs the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly called food stamps — generally require “able-bodied” adults between the ages of 18 and 50 who do not have dependent children to complete work-related activities to remain eligible for benefits. They must work at least 20 hours a week, or spend the same amount of time in job training, volunteer service, or school.

These rules apply to about 143,000 Ohioans, out of the 1.85 million state residents who receive food stamps. In Lucas County, 5.7 percent of food stamp recipients are subject to the work rules — the sixth highest rate among Ohio counties.

But the rules allow states to apply for federal waivers of the work mandates if they also qualify for emergency extended unemployment benefits, as Ohio does. Ohio had gotten such a waiver since 2007.

Last year, though, Mr. Kasich sought a waiver only for 16 Ohio counties with high unemployment rates — not including Lucas County — rather than all 88 counties, as he could have. As a result, the work requirement, and the purge of food-stamp rolls, started taking effect in most of the state last month.

The Center for Community Services, a Cleveland-based research and advocacy group, argues plausibly that the Kasich administration’s “decision to implement the work requirement was for political and not policy reasons.” Not only are there no jobs for many of those who have lost or will lose food-stamp coverage, the center notes that county departments of job and family services and local work-force development agencies “do not have the capacity to absorb a large influx of new customers.” It cites “the state’s lack of adequate investment in employment and training programs.”

Many counties have not determined whether some recipients should continue to receive food stamps because of chronic health conditions. A large number of targeted recipients have problems such as long-term unemployment, mental illness, a lack of transportation, substance abuse, or criminal records, which create barriers to finding work. Others are veterans and young adults who have “aged out” of foster care.

A new study by University of Kentucky researchers concludes that most food-stamp households now are composed primarily of working-age adults, not children or old people. The study attributes this shift to higher unemployment, stagnant wages, and growth in poorly paid, low-skill jobs. So Ohio’s policy of targeting childless adults for food-stamp cuts seems especially counterproductive.

The lost benefits are not generous; food-stamp aid for the typical Ohio recipient is about $130 a month. But that can represent the difference between subsistence and hunger, and local food banks can’t pick up all of the slack.

In Columbus and Washington, food-stamp policy has become a cruel political game. Congress’ compromise on a new farm bill cuts food-stamp aid.

Governor Kasich still can seek a waiver for the entire state from the federal food-stamp mandates. He could do so through 2015, if he is re-elected in November, but there is no reason to wait that long. Better to reverse this bad policy promptly.

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