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Published: Sunday, 2/20/2000

Where the poor can find help

BY LISA A. ABRAHAM
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Food pantries, churches, and other local charities are preparing ways they can step in and help when October arrives and an estimated 1,400 Lucas County families lose their public assistance.

Planning for the cuts has been the primary focus of such agencies for the past several years, and many already have been experiencing increased requests for help, despite the booming economy, officials say.

President Clinton, in 1996, signed welfare-reform legislation aimed at moving thousands of Americans off public assistance and into jobs. The revamped law gave states the right to limit the amount of time citizens can receive cash assistance.

Effective October, 1997, Ohio set a time limit of three years in which recipients need to obtain employment or face losing benefits. That means the first mass revocation of benefits will take place in October, and will be followed by smaller groups every month.

A Planning Committee of the Lucas County Department of Human Services has spent several years trying to devise ways for the community to respond to the cuts, in order to lessen their effects, said George Steger, department director.

At the same time, the department has been working to gradually wean people from the cash-assistance rolls and get them working so the October cuts will not be so monumental, he said.

There are people who will be exempt from the cuts - unemployed who will continue to receive cash benefits - but they cannot be more than 20 per cent of the department's total caseload, Mr. Steger said.

But for those who don't qualify for an exemption, benefits will stop.

"The name of the game is that you've got to get to work. There isn't a convenient place to go," he said.

For those clients who are working, human services will provide other forms of assistance, such as child care, job training, or transportation.

Sarah Twitchell, a welfare-rights advocate, serves as co-chair of the evaluation sub-committee for the Department of Human Services Planning Committee. She said most recipients of cash relief use the money to pay their rent, and she expects one of the biggest problems at the end of the year will be people losing housing.

"Welfare reform is going to impact the whole community," Ms. Twitchell said. "It's a whole flip from how DHS used to operate. Everyone is struggling to make that transition."

She said the new emphasis will be to keep people from falling down to the level where they need cash assistance by offering training and other programs to keep people working.

Ms. Twitchell said education and training are key, but they often are difficult goals for people who are working in low-paying jobs and trying to raise children.

The Toledo Metropolitan Mission, a nondenominational social-justice ministry, also hired Ms. Twitchell to spearhead an effort by religious organizations to respond to welfare reform.

She said churches were told they would have to pick up the charitable slack when cuts occurred, and she has been working with them to help them understand the cuts and ways they can provide help.

One of the ways Human Services has tried to respond to upcoming changes has been to increase the amount of money people can earn and still qualify for benefits.

Last fall, Lucas County commissioners adopted an increase in the amount of monthly income county residents can earn and still qualify for public assistance, raising the limit from 150 to 200 per cent of the federal poverty guidelines.

Mr. Steger said the move was to reflect the needs of the community that was shifting from a welfare base to a working-poor base.

A study released last August by the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Food Banks, showed that the number of people seeking assistance across the state had increased 20 per cent, and that more employed people were turning to food pantries for help, because despite their earnings, they still couldn't put food on the table and pay for rent, utilities, and medical bills.

James Caldwell, executive director of the Toledo Northwestern Ohio Food Bank, said the working poor is one of the fastest growing classifications of poverty. "Yes, they're working. But they aren't making that much money. Based upon their incomes, they are still running out of resources by the end of the third week of the month," he said.

Mr. Caldwell said two state programs to aid food banks have been implemented in the last three years to increase the assistance food banks can give food pantries.

Both of the state programs are being administered in conjunction with the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Food Banks, of which the Toledo food bank is one of 12 members.

The Toledo food bank serves 330 food pantries, shelters, and soup kitchens in an eight-county area, including Lucas, Wood, Fulton, Henry, Defiance, Ottawa, Sandusky, and Williams, and part of Seneca.

There are a large number of organizations throughout the various counties geared toward building up communities and assisting the disadvantaged.

The Greater Toledo United Way agencies help about 400,000 people annually. Organizations such as the American Red Cross, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, YMCAs, and other youth and family organizations reach out to many people.

Others, such as the Junior League of Toledo, the Anne Grady Center for the mentally retarded, and Toys For Tots conduct successful fund-raisers throughout the year.

 

 



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