More than 20 years after Ohio imposed work requirements on welfare recipients and limited cash assistance to 36 months, caseloads have plunged to historic lows, helping the state’s Temporary Assistance to Needy Families fund balloon to $522 million, according to a new report.
During that time, Ohio’s poverty rate has increased to 14.6 percent. It was at 11.6 percent in 1997 when the state implemented its version of welfare reform.
A report released Monday by the Center for Community Solutions raises questions about how that surplus could be used to help Ohioans who still struggle to make ends meet.
“Welfare has ended, but the program that replaced it has so fundamentally shifted the safety net that very few poor families receive any help at all from the TANF program,” said the report, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families in Ohio: Majority of Ohioans Living in Deep Poverty are not Receiving Cash Assistance, which was written by Tara Britton, director of public policy, and Brie Lusheck, a public policy associate.
For instance, the number of Ohioans receiving cash assistance has dropped 84 percent under welfare reform, to 85,155 as of June — and 90 percent of those recipients were children. Most adults have left the rolls, the report found, because of time limits or failure to meet work requirements.
The report also noted that in Ohio, for every 100 children in deep poverty — defined as living in a household with an income of no more than 50 percent of the federal poverty level — 43 were receiving cash assistance in 2010-2014, down from 54 in 2005-2009.
Under state guidelines, a family of three must have an annual income of no more than $10,080 to receive cash assistance.
But Gov. John Kasich’s administration plans to direct more TANF funding — including the entire surplus — to improve child-care programs, now serving 120,000 poor children, through the state’s Step Up to Quality initiative. The program requires tax-funded child-care centers and providers to earn at least three stars in a five-star rating system by 2025, based on the educational attainment of teachers and other criteria.
What hasn’t changed in the past two decades is the $728 million in federal aid that Ohio receives every year, plus about $450 million the state is required to kick in.
“Though TANF reserves have increased, 19 percent of Ohio families live below poverty, and 33 percent of individuals are near poverty,” with annual household incomes below 200 percent of the poverty threshold, a level that most experts agree is needed to pay for food, housing and other basic needs, the report said.
“Core TANF programs, such as cash assistance and work supports, could move the needle for these families who struggle the most,” the report said. The average benefit is $203.58 a month.
States have wide discretion on how to spend their TANF block grants, and there is no ban on maintaining a surplus.
Ohio uses the bulk of its money on cash assistance, subsidized child care and funding for counties to pay administrative costs and work-support and job-training programs.
The report said the need for cash assistance remains, and it urged state officials to lighten up on sanctions that remove beneficiaries from the rolls for failing to comply with work and other requirements. It also asked them to consider other program options, including a Franklin County one assisting those facing eviction to stay in their homes or find new ones, and subsidized employment, in which public funds pay for temporary jobs for those in need of work.
“Child care is a key work support, but there is research to support that lifting a whole family up with income assistance and other work programs improves outcomes for children,” the report said.
Bret Crow, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, said there is no plan to redirect surplus funds, which officials project will be exhausted by 2022.
“Unless there is a change in the law, we will continue to deliver on a promise of the governor and General Assembly to ensure Ohio’s most vulnerable children are ready for kindergarten by prioritizing TANF funds for the legislatively mandated Step Up to Quality program,” Crow said.
“Step Up to Quality enhances access and improves the quality of publicly funded child care throughout the state, removing a barrier for employment for the working poor while ensuring that more children get the best academic start possible.”
Joel Potts, executive director of the Ohio Job and Family Services Directors’ Association, said the state has been increasing its spending on child care in recent years, which is a vital support for poor working families.
“There is huge surplus,” he said, but he cautioned that “a surplus can only be spent once, so you don’t want it to go to an ongoing expense.” He added that “with Step Up to Quality, it will go quickly,” and state officials then will need to figure out how to pay the added child-care cost.
Catherine Candisky, The Columbus Dispatch, October 1, 2018
Poverty presists as Ohio accumulates surplus of welfare funds